Bad Money and good science / Being a heretic's a bad move (29/5/2005)

1.Bad Money and good science
2.Article by Dr Milton Wainwright

excerpt: Being a heretic has been a particularly bad idea during four historical periods: the Catholic inquisition, the Lutheran Protestant period, the Stalin-Lysenko years and finally the present day. (ITEM 2)

1.Bad Money and good science
Independent on Sunday, 29 May 2005

Your Inside Story "The Monsanto Report"( 22 May) which highlighted the treatment of Arpad Pusztai illustrates how scientists who come up with controversial findings, are often subjected to immediate, disproportionate attack by the scientific establishment. The attack on Dr Pusztai (whose work indicated potential dangers in GM food) was made with almost indecent haste. Some of these attacks were politically motivated or came from scientists who relied on the GM industry for funding.

Like all research, Pusztai's work was open to criticism but the venom of the attack showed that vested interest, rather than impartiality was often paramount.

If the public is to have confidence in science, we scientists must be able to demonstrate our independence. Such independence will never be guaranteed if scientists have to rely on funds from the food and pharmaceutical industries to research sensitive subjects such as the safety of new drugs, vaccines and GM food.

Dr Milton Wainwright
Dept of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology
University of Sheffield

2.Article by Dr Milton Wainwright in 'Science & Public Affairs'


The article by Dr Wainwright in the journal Science & Public Affairs - item 2 - was replied to by the Royal Society's Biological Secretary, Patrick Bateson. In his response Bateson claimed that The Lancet published Pusztai's research "in the face of objections by its statistically-competent referees".

In fact, this was a lie. Pusztai's Lancet paper successfully came through a peer review process which was far more stringent than that applying to most published papers.

As Dr Wainwright asks, "Is the scientific community going to continue to sit idly by while its members are victimised in this way?"

Bateson's response can found here:

Science & Public Affairs, June 2002

Some recent examples show that rocking the boat in modern science can have dramatic effects on the career and even livelihoods of modern scientists. Why do we allow fellow scientists to be treated in this disgraceful fashion?

Our teachers are fond of telling us how religious bigots persecuted scientists like Galileo and Copernicus. How much do they tell us about how science treats its own dissenters? Although being a scientific heretic clearly carries with it a certain cache, anyone tempted to become a paid-up member should expect to forfeit their reputations, careers and possibly livelihoods.

The French immunologist, Jacques Bevensite, is the perfect modern heretic who, before conducting some fateful experiments, was a respected scientist with a good track record of funding and high profile publications. He observed that certain biologically active substances still exhibit an effect even when diluted in water (with shaking) to a point where they no longer exist (the so-called 'Memory of Water'). He submitted a paper to Nature, which after due process was published. When the homeopaths said that this work proved their case, the scientific community went ballistic!

Under pressure, mainly from the American scientific establishment, John Maddox, the then Editor of Nature, distanced himself from the paper, and sent in a posse of ghost busters to sort out Benveniste. The French scientist became a national embarrassment. It was even suggested he had been set up by the perfidious Anglo-Americans to discredit the glories of French Science. He was eased out of his position as a French Government scientist.

Now I have met Benveniste and observed experiments conducted in his laboratory. He is a first rate scientist, a perfectionist who goes to incredible extremes to do good science. The fact that his wayward work has been independently reproduced remains a major embarrassment to his critics.

What are heretics like? The most obvious characteristic of those I have met is an almost naive belief in the scientific method. Rather than being bitter, overly argumentative people, they often turn out to be remarkably goodhumoured.

How then does the scientific community deal with its heretics? Mad, deranged, suspect, are all words that are freely bandied about, often by those who know nothing about what they are casually debunking. It goes without saying that the peer review and grant funding systems actively work against dissent.

Another trick is to deny heretics a platform, making it inevitable that they will turn to the media to put across their case. When, for example, Dr Andrew Wakefield recently went public on his observations that MMR vaccine might be linked to autism he was admonished for not spending ten years or so researching the full story. This despite the fact that many respected scientific agencies, like NASA, go public at the drop of a hat, while cancer research charities love to pump out press releases concerning their latest 'breakthroughs'. Dr Wakefield and other heretics must, it seems, play by other rules.

Although I have restricted my discussion to heretics in my own field of biology, all the sciences have their dissenters. In cosmology for example, there are those who put the quasi state universe above the big bang. Some physicists still believe in cold fusion, while a minority of geologists doubt continental drift – itself a former heresy.

Surprisingly, organisations like the Royal Society and the Royal Colleges often do the opposite of protecting heretics.The Royal Society for example, seemed to take an almost morbid delight in crucifying Árpád Pusztai when he dared to doubt the safety of GM foods; a process applauded by those of his fellow scientists, whose grant income relied upon his martyrdom.

Being a heretic has been a particularly bad idea during four historical periods: the Catholic inquisition, the Lutheran Protestant period, the Stalin-Lysenko years and finally the present day. Nowadays, university science in the UK is 'accountancy led' – a process exacerbated by the recent Research Assessment Exercise (RAE).This has proved to be a Stalinist exercise in the bureaucratic centralisation of science.

Every aspect of the RAE works against dissenters. To excel in the RAE, a researcher must obtain large amounts of grant income via peer review and publish widely cited work (i.e. believable to the majority) in so-called 'quality journals' (which are generally conservative in outlook). Finally, the researcher must attain high levels of esteem, including being invited to speak at international (i.e. mainstream) meetings, and being offered honours such as Fellowships of (usually conservative) organisations like the Royal Society. [out of interest, Pusztai had a large number of publications in 'quality journals', had spoken regularly at international meetings, and was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh]

Is the scientific community going to continue to sit idly by while its members are victimised in this way? Never forget that the next 'knock on the door' could be for you!

Dr Milton Wainwright
is a Microbiologist at the University of Sheffield.

He has published widely on the history and philosophy of science.


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