Scientists complacent, arrogant and ill-informed about development issues (23/8/2004)

The scientist, John Pickett, whose ignorance is highlighted in this letter is the same scientist who sought to smear Atpad Pusztai's Lancet paper in the run up to its publication with completely bogus claims both about its content and about its reception by the Lancet's peer reviewers - see item 2.

1.Scientists complacent, arrogant and ill-informed about development issues
2.John Pickett - a GM WATCH profile

1.Communication is key to aid development efforts
Nature 430, 829 (19 August 2004); doi:10.1038/430829a

Sir – Recent calls by the United Nations (Nature 430, 5; 2004) for stronger science input to support aid policy, in particular for feeding the hungry, are welcome. In the United Kingdom, organizations such as the Department for International Development (DFID) need to improve their use of the science base. But there is also scope for the scientific community to improve its understanding of development issues surrounding agricultural policy, if scientists are to be productively engaged in fighting world hunger and poverty.

In the United Kingdom, the call for better use of science in development has been led by the Royal Society and the science research councils. In a recent News story (Nature 429, 492; 2004), John Lawton, of the Natural Environment Research Council, described DFID as "complacent, rather arrogant and ill-informed" about science.

However, similar shortcomings with respect to understanding of development issues are evident in the public pronouncements of some of the country's leading scientists.

At the same parliamentary inquiry at which Lawton addressed DFID's shortcomings, John Pickett, of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, described how, on a visit to Malawi, his team was "whisked off" to view "some kind of DFID programme in which very, very small bags of seed and very, very small bags of fertilizer were being given out.... This seemed to be a totally unsustainable and non-scientific based [sic] piece of development work which you would not really expect of an organisation like DFID".

The programme Pickett refers to is known as the Malawi Starter Pack Programme, which, in the 1998 and 1999 planting seasons, aimed to supply Malawi's 2.8 million smallholder farming households with sufficient inorganic fertilizer and hybrid maize seed to plant 0.1 hectare (the average land-holding in southern Malawi is 0.3 ha). These "very, very small" inputs were intended to provide a short-term safety net, to enable Malawi's farmers to survive the consequences of the International Monetary Fund's Structural Adjustment Programme. This had withdrawn subsidies from agricultural inputs (including fertilizer), ordered a dramatic currency devaluation and caused (through withdrawal of state services) the collapse of the agricultural credit system. As a result, most farmers were unable to afford the inputs needed to grow enough food for household consumption (see http://web.africa.ufl.edu/asq/v6/v6i1a8.htm).

Far from being unscientific, the Starter Pack programme was based on a thorough knowledge of the constraints faced by farmers and the production dynamics of Malawian agriculture. The programme was designed by Charles Mann, an economist at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and former food security adviser to Malawi's government. DFID provided much of the funding for the programme, but its implementation was a multi-donor effort.

With the secretary of state for international development, Hilary Benn, having recently confirmed that DFID will appoint a chief scientist, there are good opportunities for science to serve development needs, provided there is effective communication on both sides.

Edward H. Allison
School of Development Studies, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK

2.John Pickett - a GM WATCH profile

Prof John Pickett is a Fellow of the Royal Society and an expert in plant chemistry who works at Rothamsted Research Centre which, although principally publicly funded via the BBSRC, lists Aventis, DuPont , Novartis and Syngenta, as amongst its 'partners'.

In the run up to the Lancet's publication of the Pusztai and Ewen's paper indicating ill effects of GM foods on rats, The Independent’s science editor Steve Connor ran a spoiler piece based on an attack by Prof Pickett, the only reviewer of the paper to publicly argue against publication.

Pickett has subsequently sought to justify his having broken the norms of peer review by publicly attacking a scientific paper - sent to him in confidence - before it had even been published. He has written , 'I was requested by The Lancet to review the paper submitted by Dr Pusztai in 1999 and I provided my written comments to the editor in the usual way. Despite my recommendation, the journal chose to publish the paper. On learning this, I decided that the interests of science would be best served if I made public my reasons (along with that of other colleagues) for believing Dr Pusztai's conclusions were not substantiated by the data.'

Prof Pickett went to a national newspaper, The Independent. It reported his concerns under the headline, Scientists revolt at publication of flawed GM study, and the article went on to state that Pusztai's study had 'failed the ultimate test of scientific credibility', ie peer review.

But it hadn't. Out of the 6 reviewers only Prof Pickett opposed publication and although one other reviewer (widely reported to be Prof Anthony Trewavas , a well-known GM proponent) thought the paper should only be published in the public interest, the other 4 reviewers had all been sufficiently satisfied at the end of the peer review process to recommend publication on the grounds of scientific merit. 'A clear majority of The Lancet’s reviewers were in favour,' confirms Richard Horton, the editor of The Lancet.

Dr Pusztai also contests Pickett's claim that, 'I provided my written comments to the editor in the usual way. Despite my recommendation, the journal chose to publish the paper'. According to Pusztai , in 'none of the referees' comments passed on to us by the Lancet to reply to (by definition, one of these must have been from Prof Pickett) was there a statement that our paper must be rejected.'

The article in The Independent appears to have been part of a campaign to discredit the Pusztai paper prior to publication orchestrated by the Royal Society. In a front page article on the scandal The Guardian reported, 'Prof Pickett said that when he realised that Dr Pusztai's paper had been accepted for publication, he took his concerns to the Royal Society' s biological secretary [Peter Lachmann] who told him the society was already preparing a press release. Five days before the Lancet published, an article appeared in a national newspaper in which Prof Pickett broke the protocols of peer review and publicly attacked the Lancet for agreeing to publish the Pusztai paper. Two days after the spoiler article appeared, Prof Lachmann made his phone call to the editor of the Lancet [in which he is said to have threatened the editor with the loss of his job if publication proceeded].'

The criticsms of the Pusztai and Ewen paper that Pickett made in The Independent were so misleading that Pusztai says the best interpretation that can be put upon Pickett's comments is that he had not actually read the paper he had been asked to review.

Pickett claimed:

*Pusztai "changed horses midstream" by changing the rats’ diet from raw potatoes to boiled. (This can easily be seen to be untrue from the paper. The rats were consistently fed on diets either containing raw potatoes or boiled potatoes, but never both. No change of diet took place part way through the experiment) ;

*The intestinal lesions caused in the GM-fed rats could be explained by higher levels of glycoalkaloids in the potatoes, rather than GM. (There is no data linking glycoalkaloids with this type of gut abnormality. In any case, the GM potatoes actually contained less glycoalkaloids than the non-GM ones);

*That the experiment was not valid because Pusztai didn’t allow for the fact that the inserted gene could express differently in a potato from the way it would express in the snowdrop from which it was derived. (This is an extraordinary claim because Pusztai’s team was the first group of researchers (and possibly the only group) to isolate the gene product from the actual food crop being tested, the potato).

In the newspaper article Prof Pickett said he was acting in the interests of truth and science. In point of fact he seems to have misled the paper which in turn misled its readers.

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