More on Traavik witch-hunt + Pusztai on risk aversion (25/3/2004)

In forwarding to the list an e-mail from Prof Terje Traavik, we prefaced it with a comment which referred to Dr Arpad Pusztai as the scientific director of Prof Traavik's institute (Genök - Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology).

This is not in fact the case. Arpad Pusztai has done work there but Prof Traavik is the scientific director which is why he says in the e-mail to Pusztai and Bardocz, "I neither knew I was sacked, nor that Arpad was out for my job." (item 1)

So why were both GM WATCH and Sir Peter Lachmann confused on this issue? It was reported on Prakash's AgBioView that Pusztai was the scientific director on the basis of an interesting piece on risk by Pusztai (see item 2) that appeared on the website Spiked-online.

Pusztai has forwarded us what he sent to Spiked, which read, "Arpad Pusztai; GenOk (Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology), Tromso, Norway" but this was changed by Spiked to read, "Árpád Pusztai is scientific director at GenØk - the Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology, Tromso, Norway".

Just why Spiked did this is unclear but we apologise for any confusion caused.

As Spiked are part of the LM network, and Sir Peter Lachmann is on the Advisory Council of Sense About Science and is also an advisor to the Genetic Interest Group, both of which LM network members and Spiked contributors as key staff members, Spiked also  seems the probable source of Lachmann's confusion.

For more on Spiked:

For more on Lachmann:

1. The Traavik e-mail
From: "Terje Traavik" [email protected]
To: Arpad Pusztai and Susan Bardocz

Dear  both

The Pres of the Royal Norwegian Academy of Sciences, prof. Lars Walløe, rang me up yesterday and warned me that Peter Lachman was out hunting

He had contacted Walløe and wanted him to take action with me:

1. Because of the Kuala Lumpur talk etc.

2. Because we had made Arpad scientific director of Genök (sic!).

I explained to him that we proudly had included Arpad in our KL delegation, but otherwise I neither knew I was sacked, nor that Arpad was out for my job.

Best regards


2.Observations and comments on the spiked debate of society's risk-aversion

Having read the comments and responses on "are we too risk averse" in the spiked debate up to 10th February I was struck by a number of interesting points.

Of these, the first and most startling was that many respondents were not clear about the definition of hazards, risks and risk assessment. It was not much helped by the red herring of fear thrown in by people, such as John Ryan (Oxford). In fact, most scientists and technologists know what the hazards are for a particular new product.  In many instances these can be determined and even measured.  However, the probability of their happening is more difficult to forecast, particularly when probability in most instances is based on assumptions about which people can sharply differ. Also only some of the many possible consequences of the hazards can be reliably assessed.  Peoples' views again will differ widely.  It is quite difficult to predict the unknown, particularly as this depends on whose crystal ball it is being viewed through.  It appears what industry may regard as unnecessary hindrance to progress others in society may view as an important safety measure.

A good example of the confusion can be found in the first para of Helene Guldberg's, the managing editor of spiked "lead response".  She states that "science is, by its very nature risky, experimentation involves investigating the unknown".  This can be misunderstood because it is not the experimentation (usually done in the confinement of a laboratory) that is risky but the unforeseen and possibly dangerous consequences of the technology transfer of the research results into practical applications. Quite rightly, the governments have enacted laws regulating and controlling this transfer, particularly when the new products or technologies could have major potentially harmful effects on public health and the environment.

When she describes all the wonderful inventions, such as antibiotics, drugs generally, in vitro fertilization, etc which, according to her, could have never come about if we had not taken risks, she misses one crucial point i.e. that the law stipulates that these inventions had first be rigorously tested in animal and then in human clinical trials before most people would ever hear about them. 

A good point is made by Sean Davidson about the opposite case when breakthroughs in fact backfired.  Although zero risk does not exist, as we are constantly and painfully reminded by cases like the thalidomide catastrophe, this should not absolve us from doing everything possible to eliminate or minimize it. People’s attitudes are in fact less risk averse when the assessment of the new products, such as drugs is carried out by a well-trusted public regulatory body with a good track record, such as the FDA in the USA. People are quite ready to accept even drugs produced by recombinant genetic technology, such as insulin because it is known that these had to be first subjected to human clinical trials. In contrast, people have a negative attitude to GM foods as they know that, unlike new drugs, the FDA does not require their rigorous testing.

Unfortunately, while in most instances it is the society that has to face the consequences of the hazards, the industry will take most of the benefits.  In this light it was interesting that those responding from the industry were much more keen on the notion that for progress' sake "we" ought to take more risks while others from the general public and from the academic community, particularly from social sciences, were less convinced.

  Another major point missed by some respondents in the debate on the society’s risk aversion was in fact connected with the question of trust in the regulators and regulation as discussed above.  It serves no purpose or may even be counterproductive for the industry to lament the irrational and emotional responses from the public or even from "a nervous and insecure elite" if this is meant to replace the proper but costly testing of new products with bland assurances about their safety. 

Based on their previo


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