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Date:

June 26, 2002

Subject:

CONFLICTS AROUND A STUDY OF MEXICAN CROPS

 

Today in AgBioView: June 27, 2002:

BELOW ARE FOUR LETTERS APPEARING IN THE LATEST ISSUE OF NATURE (27 JUNE,
2002) CONCERNING THE MEXICAN MAIZE STUDY AND ITS "RETRACTION," FOLLOWED BY
A COMMENT BY THE EDITORS OF NATURE.

CONFLICTS AROUND A STUDY OF MEXICAN CROPS

Sir ń Scientific endeavour is based on formation and testing of
hypotheses. Very few hypotheses persist unmodified after they are first
proposed; most are tested, modified and re-tested, and often refuted. Many
journals include a forum for scientists to make technical comments on
recent publications and for the original authors to respond, so that
readers can evaluate the merit of reported scientific findings.

The cornerstones of a rigorous publication process are the subject editor,
who is familiar with the research area of a submitted manuscript, and the
independent outside reviewers whose recommendations are solicited by the
subject editor. This thorough evaluation ensures, to some extent, the
journal's impartiality in publication decisions.

Despite this rigorous process, however, Nature recently published a
technical exchange1-3 accompanied by an editorial note stating: "Nature
has concluded that the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the
publication of the original paper".

In our view this statement reflects poorly on Nature's editorial policy
and review process, and sets a dangerous precedent. Why has Nature
refrained from releasing similar editorial retractions of earlier
publications later found to be incorrect or open to alternative
interpretations? What sets this particular publication apart? If the
interpretation of the results proposed by the authors of the original
paper4 was judged by Nature to be sufficiently erroneous to warrant this
editorial statement, why did Nature publish the report in the first place?

By taking sides in such an unambiguous manner, Nature risks losing its
impartial and professional status. This is particularly troubling when
articles are related to economic or political interests. Nature asks its
contributors to provide information regarding conflicts of interest, but
does Nature hold itself to the same standards?

Andrew V. Suarez
Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, Division of
Insect Biology, University of California, 201 Wellman Hall, Berkeley,
California 94720-3112, USA

Other signatories to this letter:

Mike Benard, Neil D. Tsutsui Department of Evolution and Ecology, Center
for Population Biology, University of California, Davis, USA

Todd A. Blackledge Department of Entomology, Cornell University, Ithaca,
USA

Kirsten Copren, Eli M. Sarnat, Alex L. Wild Department of Entomology,
University of California, Davis, USA

Wayne M. Getz, Philip T. Starks, Kipling Will, Per J. PalsbŻll Department
of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California,
Berkeley, USA

Mark E. Hauber Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, Cornell
University, USA

Craig Moritz Department of Integrative Biology, University of California,
Berkeley, USA

Adam D. Richman Department of Plant Science and Plant Pathology, Montana
State University, USA

References

1. Metz, M. & F¸tterer, J. Nature 416, 600-601 (2002).
2. Kaplinsky, N. et al. Nature 416, 601 (2002).
3. Quist, D. & Chapela, I. H. Nature 416, 602 (2002).
4. Quist, D. & Chapela, I. H. Nature 414, 541-543 (2001).
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Sir ń The controversy surrounding Quist and Chapela's findings of
transgenic introgression in Mexican maize1-4 is taking place within webs
of political and financial influence that compromise the objectivity of
their critics.

The eight authors of the two published criticisms1, 2 of Quist and
Chapela's paper4 have had all or part of their research funded by the
Torrey Mesa Research Institute (TMRI), an offspring of the agricultural
biotechnology company Novartis (now Syngenta).

The affiliation of seven of those authors with TMRI is a result of that
company's $25-million 'strategic alliance' with the University of
California (UC), Berkeley's College of Natural Resources. Wilhelm
Gruissem, formerly of UC, Berkeley and architect of the strategic
alliance, whose laboratory is in partnership with TMRI, is the supervisor
of the eighth author, Johannes F¸tterer. None of the eight authors
declares this funding as a competing financial interest in their published
contributions.

Such a funding arrangement might be less noteworthy had Chapela and Quist
not been leading critics of the strategic alliance and its implications
for scientific freedom and balance. Their vocal opposition to the alliance
jeopardized a large flow of financial support for the authors of the
criticisms.

Compromised positions extend beyond those of these critics. Nature
Publishing Group actively integrates its interests with those of companies
invested in agricultural and other biotechnology, such as Novartis,
AstraZeneca and other 'sponsorship clients', soliciting them to "promote
their corporate image by aligning their brand with the highly respected
Nature brand" (see http://npg.nature.com). These partnerships seem to us
to challenge Nature's ability to provide a neutral forum for scientific
debates on agricultural biotechnology.

Nature's editorial note disavowing Quist and Chapela's work in the same
issue as the technical exchanges1-3 was unorthodox and unnecessary. The
usual scientific process of contestation should have been permitted to
proceed, using Quist and Chapela's claims and data alone to repeat, verify
or refute their findings. Because of its potential effect on regulatory
policy, publication of the technical exchanges and Nature's editorial note
immediately before the UNEP Convention on Biological Diversity meeting and
discussions of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (where Nature's
editorial note was mentioned) further undermines the journal's stance as
uncompromised by commercial interests.

In such an environment, it is difficult to imagine fair consideration
being given to work that challenges commercially vested interests and the
assumptions of reductionist molecular biology. Quist and Chapela's paper
obviously represents such a challenge. That fact ó not the quality of
their work ó together with the politics of universityńindustry relations,
remains central to their paper's troubled reception.

The agricultural biotechnology industry undermines its own credibility by
not aggressively evaluating the health and environmental implications of
its products. The public will remain sceptical until it does so.

We call on scientists, Nature and other scientific journals to re-examine
their commitment to agricultural biotechnology as well as their own
conflicts of interest, and to actively encourage a balanced, critical
evaluation of the ecological and health effects of the flow of transgenes
into the environment.

For further analysis, see
http://www.cnr.berkeley.edu/~kenw/maize/compromised.htm.

Kenneth Worthy
Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of
California, Berkeley, 135 Giannini Hall, Berkeley, California 94720-3312,
USA
kworthy@nature.berkeley.edu

Richard C. Strohman
Department of Cell and Molecular Biology, University of California,
Berkeley, 229 Stanley Hall, Berkeley, California 94720-3206, USA

Paul R. Billings
GeneSage, Inc., 589 Howard Street, San Francisco, California 94105, USA

Statement of competing financial interests: the authors are recipients of
educational grants from and/or employees of the University of California,
Berkeley, which could lose financially from publication of this
Correspondence as a result of its strategic alliance with TMRI/Syngenta.

References

1. Metz, M. & F¸tterer, J. Nature 416, 600-601 (2002).
2. Kaplinsky, N. et al. Nature 416, 601 (2002).
3. Quist, D. & Chapela, I. H. Nature 416, 602 (2002).
4. Quist, D. & Chapela, I. H. Nature 414, 541-543 (2001).
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Metz and F¸tterer Reply

- The accusations of Worthy et al. about our Brief Communication1 do not
relate to the scientific data of Quist and Chapela4. Our concern was
exclusively over the quality of the scientific data and conclusions, which
would have been the same whatever the motivation of the criticism.

Bad science can only undermine our understanding of nature, and the making
of constructive public policy. The statement that "commercially vested
interests" (that is, ties to Syngenta/ Novartis) are "central to"
criticisms of the data in ref. 4 is as useless in addressing the
scientific issues as would be an accusation that these data were tainted
by a grudge between Chapela and his former employer (the same company).
Although our connections to industry are irrelevant to the scientific
issues, and hence do not warrant disclosure, we feel compelled to dispel
the mischaracterization of Worthy et al.. One of us (M. M.) had TMRI
funding for only one-sixth of his study at UC Berkeley, and the other's
(J. F.) alleged link to TMRI relies entirely on someone else's former
Berkeley association. Both of us currently have research funding
exclusively from the public sector.

We are not unlike many scientists in that we have shared research and
funding with industry at some point. In stating that we have "compromised
positions", Worthy et al. wrongly imply that private-sector funding strips
us of integrity and legitimacy in the arena of scientific discourse. Far
from promoting "scientific freedom and balance", this presumption tars any
scientist who can be suggested to have worked with the private sector. The
only threat to academic freedom that seems to have materialized from the
Berkeley/TMRI collaboration is this attitude towards scientists who might
have industry links.

Matthew Metz
Department of Microbiology, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington
98195, USA

Johannes F¸tterer
Institute of Plant Sciences, ETH, CH-8092 Z¸rich, Switzerland

References

1. Metz, M. & F¸tterer, J. Nature 416, 600-601 (2002).
2. Kaplinsky, N. et al. Nature 416, 601 (2002).
3. Quist, D. & Chapela, I. H. Nature 416, 602 (2002).
4. Quist, D. & Chapela, I. H. Nature 414, 541-543 (2001).
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Kaplinsky Replies

ń I, on behalf of the authors of our Brief Communication2, state
unequivocally that funding from TMRI has absolutely nothing to do with our
criticisms. Worthy and co-authors are incorrect. Two of my co-authors of
ref. 2 (Hake and Hay) do not receive any industry funding. Funding
information for the Freeling lab (Braun, Freeling, Lisch and N. K.) is
transparent and public (see
http://plantbio.berkeley.edu/~freeling/labweb/fund.html); less than a
quarter of it is from industry.

As Worthy et al. state, Chapela and Quist are "leading critics" of the
TMRI agreement. Chapela is a board member of PANNA
(http://www.panna.org/panna/about/board.html#ihc), an advocacy group
opposing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It is a double standard to
accuse us, but not Quist and Chapela, of a conflict of interest.

Our letter was a critique of poorly conducted and interpreted science and
was not pro- or anti-GMO or industry. We simply corrected what we think is
bad science. Even if we were in the pockets of industry, Quist and
Chapela's published results4 would still be artefactual.

Nick Kaplinsky
Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, University of California,
Berkeley, California 94720, USA

Nature comments:

It is highly unusual for Nature to publish a paper whose principal
conclusion is shown to be not necessarily false but unsustainable on the
basis of the reported evidence. The paper was not formally retracted by
its authors or by Nature. In the circumstances, Nature considered it
appropriate for the record to make clear to readers its revised view of
its original decision to publish.

The independence of our editorial decision-making from partisan anti- or
pro-technology agendas and from commercial interests is paramount in our
role as a journal.

Editor, Nature

References

1. Metz, M. & F¸tterer, J. Nature 416, 600-601 (2002).
2. Kaplinsky, N. et al. Nature 416, 601 (2002).
3. Quist, D. & Chapela, I. H. Nature 416, 602 (2002).
4. Quist, D. & Chapela, I. H. Nature 414, 541-543 (2001).