Sainsbury in row over GM research funding (28/5/2006)

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Sainsbury in row over GM research funding
Steven Swinford
The Sunday Times, May 28 2006

LORD SAINSBURY, the billionaire science minister, is embroiled in a fresh controversy after it emerged that projects he set up to promote genetically modified (GM) foods have been awarded more than GBP12m by his department.

The Sainsbury Laboratory, which researches GM crops, has received a 400% increase in government funding since Labour came to power in 1997, with grants of GBP8.7m.

A further GBP4.2m has been given to Plant Bioscience in the past five years, a company set up by Sainsbury's charitable foundation, which markets spin-offs from the laboratory.

The disclosure of the large increases in funding has led to claims by Sainsbury's critics that the minister faces an "untenable conflict of interest".

The Sunday Times Rich List puts the wealth of Sainsbury and his family GBP1.6 billion. He has donated GBP6.5m to Labour since 2001 and has been science minister since 1998. Only Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have retained their positions in government for longer.

The row over funding of the Sainsbury Laboratory and Plant Bioscience comes after it emerged the peer initially failed to declare a GBP2m loan to Labour before the general election last year. Alan Duncan, the shadow trade secretary, said: "Lord Sainsbury is treating government funding like his private hobby."

Sainsbury helped found the Sainsbury Laboratory in 1987, and his charity, the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, gives it GBP2m a year. Since he became science minister grants to the laboratory from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council have risen from GBP281,905 to nearly GBP1.1m last year. The council is funded by the Office of Science and Innovation, which answers to Sainsbury.

The rise in funding comes as other institutions are under threat. For example, four wildlife research laboratories at the Dorset Centre for Ecology and Hydrology are being closed.

Sue Ferns, of Prospect, the science union, said: "Favoured projects do well while those of value that are not favoured by the great and good lose out."

Plant Bioscience was created by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation in 1994. This year it received a GBP1.9m award from the Department of Trade and Industry to help encourage scientists to promote research. It received GBP1.8m under the same award scheme in 2004.

While the grants were awarded by an independent panel, both were signed off by Sainsbury as minister. The company was also awarded GBP530,000 in 2001 under a separate award to help create more bioscience start-up companies.

A spokesman for Sainsbury last week denied any conflict of interest, insisting that funding decisions are made "purely on the quality of the research proposals". He added that the minister did not get involved with any discussions on GM issues, and all his commercial and charitable interests were run through a blind trust, in which he had no involvement.

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