Australia's new chief scientist: a conflict of interest? (13/7/2006)

excerpt: Should our Chief Scientist, who is aggressively lobbying for regulation changes (and ignoring the work of the scientists who oppose these), disclose to the Australian public the personal or financial benefits he might stand to gain from these changes? Being an agribusiness lobbyist is one thing. Being a Chief Scientist is another.

Australia's new Chief Scientist: a conflict of interest?

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Rightly or wrongly, former Australian Chief Scientist Robin Batterham resigned in a storm of controversy. He had a perceived conflict of interest. After criticising Batterham's part-time status, Dr Jim Peacock accepted the part-time job himself earlier this year, telling ABC’s AM program "I certainly don't anticipate any conflicts of interest".

But some as-yet unpublished information about our new Chief Scientist might suggest a whopper of a conflict of interest.

A recipient of the Prime Minister's inaugural science award, Peacock was also appointed to Howard's advisory council. With his new appointment, The Canberra Times bitchily reported:

Dr Peacock finds it hard to resist a prestigious appointment, a proclivity confirmed last week when CSIRO staff were told that he would now spend half of his working time providing "science leadership" to the organization."

When three senior CSIRO scientists, at considerable personal expense, blew the whistle by claiming the Howard government was gagging them, Peacock came out in strong denial, toeing the government line.

In what looked like a bizarre do ut des, Peacock reportedly nominated Howard for an Academy of Science medal after being appointed to several government advisory positions (some ex-officio).

There’s little doubt Peacock was hand-picked by Howard for the job. Although Peacock had been interviewed, he wasn’t shortlisted by then Education, Science and Training Minister Brendon Nelson. "Nelson had lost control of the process and the Prime Minister was not persuaded to approve [Nelson’s] nominee," reported Simon Grose in The Canberra Times.

Being cosy with the PM doesn’t necessarily scream "political appointment" or "conflict of interest". Unlike those appointed to the ABC board, Peacock is a bona fide expert, eminently experienced in his field. He’s been admirably vocal about the need to fund basic science and 'public good' research, rather than the industry quick-fixes the Howard government seems intent on funding. (Though his idea of 'public good' has been debated.) A nuclear proponent, he is said to have influenced Howard’s overdue acceptance of the overwhelming evidence that fossil-fuel use is accelerating global warming.

Peacock has campaigned strongly for the abolition of state moratoria on genetically modified (GM) food crops. He’s confident, too, of his lobbying success. As The Age reported:

Dr Peacock believes there is now a real chance that state bans on GM herbicide-tolerant canola and other new GM crops will come off before 2008. "If they can find a face-saving way of getting out, they will," he says.

While he has widespread and bipartisan support, there's a vast body of science contradicting his views. Many eminent senior geneticists, agricultural scientists, environmental scientists, molecular biologists, epidemiologists, nutritionists and science sociologists have refuted claims that GM food is safe to eat, grow, or feed to livestock. These experts include Richard Strohman, Stuart Newman, George Wald, Barry Commoner, Geoffrey Lawrence, Samuel S Epstein, Norman Ellstrand, David Suzuki, Judy Carmen, Richard Lacey, Hugh Campbell, Colin Blakemore, Mae-Wan Ho, Richard Hindmarsh, Shirlene Badger, Rosemary Stanton, Philip Davies, Adrienne Hallam, Richard Hil, Sarah Hindmarsh, Kees Hulsman, Stewart Lockie, Kristen Lyons, Monica Seini, Vandana Shiva, Arpad Pusztai, Sujatha Byravan, , Suzanne Wuerthele, Richard Lewontin, Andrew Chesson, Gordon McVie, Michael Antoniou, Harash Narang, Erik Millstone, Murray Lumpkin, Michael Hansen, Joe Cummins, Stenley Ewen, Sharad Patak, John Heritage, Kate Clinch-Jones, and many other scientists.

(Not one of these scientists - nor any scientist opposing GM food products - was quoted during the newspaper so-called 'debate' about moratoria on GM food crops. Peacock, though, was extensively quoted, and the issue was depicted as one of science versus public hysteria.)

Many economists and agronomists also published empirical studies that refute Peacock's claim that GM food crops lower water and pesticide use. Economic studies refute his claim that GM crops have increased yields and export markets. The Network of Concerned Farmers and sections of the SA Farmers' Federation have also publicly opposed views put forward by Peacock.

He, as a "pro-GM warrior", has shown "combative disdain for critics of GM technology", according to The Canberra Times. His approach is "highly divisive" and "antagonistic", claims Senator Christine Milne. The IPA's Jennifer Marohasy wrote that she has "always admired his dogged approach to GM issues."

There's no disputing Peacock's achievements, and I don’t want this to be a thread about the pros and cons of GM food crops or biotechnology. (For the record, I don't support GM foods, but I think biotechnology has potentially marvellous applications.) This is a political argument, not a scientific one. What concerns me is that our Chief Scientist’s interests in aggressively opposing State regulation, as well as international laws, have not been disclosed or scrutinised.

Speaking about biotechnology not as a science, but as a business, Peacock told the National Press Club that "Biotechnology is like any other business system", involving

"protective intellectual property claims, through the cost of adherence to regulatory requirements … the need for effective communication… of business and extending to decision makers. It is important for our Parliamentary representatives to fully understand what is being proposed."

And Peacock’s interests in "what is being proposed"?

The last time I looked, Peacock was on the board of three biotech companies and on the payroll of one as an ‘advisor’. That, to me, presents conflicts of interest, but they're on public record, they don't automatically translate to dishonest politics, and no-one seems to be making any noise about them.

What isn’t published is that Peacock has at least two (and evidence of more) international GM patents. It's unclear whether they're privately owned by him. Some bodies, including universities and the CSIRO, automatically own the patents of their scientists, or else make confidential agreements regarding rights or revenue shares.

But these patents appear to be owned by a small group including Peacock.The thing to do is ask him, of course. Which I hope some journalists will do, because Larvatus Prodeo doesn't have the resources for this type of investigation. If they are owned by him, they present a conflict of interest that towers over Batterham's.

Here's why. Peacock's patents are for what appear to be (and what one microbiologist has confirmed are) GURTs. I won’t go into a long explanation about GURTs (gene use restriction technologies). An explanation is here and here. Some GURTs produce 'suicide seeds', preventing farmers from seed-saving and giving GURT patent owners monopoly control of fertility and food security. Some contain a mechanism to switch on or off a specific gene (for example, ripening, flowering, growth or suicide genes), often on application of a patented chemical. In effect, these GM crops' ability to fruit, flower or reproduce is password-protected by companies.

Most GURTs are illegal globally, in part because of threats of genetic contamination to neighbouring crops, a situation not without precedent. But at the recent UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Australian Government pushed to end to the global moratorium, a move supported by Peacock.

One of Peacock's patents involves switching on or off a plant's flowering gene, most likely with the application of a chemical agent. Another enables fruiting plants to reproduce asexually, without fertilisation.

These GM patents are (bio)technical inventions, not 'science' per se. They're commercial products. And there's no way to market these products unless State and international moratoria are revoked. Peacock is lobbying hard for this. Peacock's products might have potential benefits or disastrous consequences for farmers, consumers or the environment. That's not up for debate here. Nor am I suggesting that Peacock has been wilfully secretive about his patents. Instead, I want the media to ask: Do Jim Peacock’s patents present a conflict of interest in his public campaigns as Australia’s Chief Scientist? Should our Chief Scientist, who is aggressively lobbying for regulation changes (and ignoring the work of the scientists who oppose these), disclose to the Australian public the personal or financial benefits he might stand to gain from these changes? Being an agribusiness lobbyist is one thing. Being a Chief Scientist is another.

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