The Royal Society was founded in 1660 and claims to be the worlds oldest scientific organization. Its illustrious past presidents include Isaac Newton and Humphrey Davey.
The Royal Society gives as its primary objective the promotion of 'excellence in science'. It says it has three roles: as the UK's national academy of science, as a learned Society and as a funding agency. However, Moira Brown, a professor of neurovirology at Glasgow University, sums up the view of a number of critics when she describes it as 'a self-perpetuating elite'.
Set up as a product of royal patronage, the Society's funds have traditionally come from the public purse. More recently it has begun to receive substantial funds from transnational biotechnology corporations, such as Rhone Poulenc and Glaxo Wellcome, as well as from corporations in the oil, gas and nuclear industries (see, for example, The Royal Society Annual Review 1998-99, p.26).
Curiously, the Society justifies such donations by saying that it will ensure it can 'formulate balanced judgements about the use of science to solve national, social, economic and industrial problems... independent of vested interests'. But the biologist and social scientist Dr Tom Wakeford sees it somewhat differently, 'British citizens are paying taxes to fund an organisation that actively promotes the interests of multinational biotech corporations, under the guise of independent science.'
Fellows of the Royal Society often have extensive commercial interests of their own, or depend on corporate funding for their own research activities and successes. The Royal Society's former Vice President and Biological Secretary, Sir Peter Lachmann, for instance, has been:
a scientific advisor to SmithKline Beecham;
a non-executive director for Adprotech plc, a biotech company which he helped spin out from SmithKline Beecham; and
a consultant to Geron Biomed, which markets the cloning technology behind Dolly the sheep
The Society's former President (1995-2000), Sir Aaron Klug, joined the Scientific Advisory Board of GeneProt, which has a commercial relationship with Novartis, in June 2000, ie while still the Society's President.
For 300 years a key principle of the Society was not meddling in public controversies. Its journal Philosophical Transactions carried a notice in every issue stating, 'It is an established rule of the Royal Society... never to give their opinion, as a Body, upon any subject.' But by the 1960s the notice had quietly been dropped, and by the late 1990's the Society's then President, Sir Aaron Klug, was boasting, 'We have contributed early and proactively to public debate about genetically modified plants.' (President's Address, The Royal Society Annual Review 1998-99).
In September 1998 the Royal Society issued its first report on GM crops, entitled Genetically Modified Plants for Food Use. Its expert group broadly concluded that the use of GM plants had the potential to offer benefits in agricultural practice, food quality, nutrition and health.
Almost every member of the group was a known supporter of GM foods. The chairman was Peter Lachmann - later accused of threatening the editor of The Lancet in an effort to prevent the publication of Dr Arpad Pusztais research showing adverse effects on rats from GM potatoes.
Other contributors holding positions within the Society were Aaron Klug (President), Brian Heap (Foreign Secretary) and Rebecca Bowden (Secretary). Others involved in drawing up the report included Ed Dart of Adprotech - the biotech company which Lachmann helped found - and also a former R&D Director of Zeneca Seeds, Neville Craddock of Nestlé, Phil Dale and Mike Gale plus two other colleagues from the John Innes Centre, Derek Burke, Chris Leaver, Alan Malcolm, and Noreen Murray.
A year later the Royal Society was a key contributor to the 'white paper', Transgenic Plants and World Agriculture, issued jointly by seven national academies of science. The paper emphasized the potential of GM crops to relieve hunger and poverty. The team which represented the Royal Society on this occasion was constituted by Aaron Klug, Brian Heap, Mike Gale and Michael Lipton, with Rebecca Bowden once again as Secretary. Gale, Heap and Lipton were also part of the team that produced the pro-GM Nuffield Council report that included an appendix highly critical of Dr Pusztai.