Lord (David) Sainsbury of Turville was Science Minister in Tony Blairs government from 1998-2007. He was also a member of the cabinet biotechnology committee, Sci-Bio, responsible for national policy on GM crops and foods, and as such was a key adviser to Blair on GM technology. He is also a donor to Blair's Labour Party. He gave Labour its biggest ever single donation in September 1997. On October 3 1997 he was made a life peer by Blair and a year later Minister for Science.
By 2003 Lord Sainsbury had given over £11 million to the Labour Party. Mark Seddon, a member of Labour's National Executive Committee, told the BBC, 'In any other country I think a government minister donating such vast amounts of money and effectively buying a political party would be seen for what it is, a form of corruption of the political process.' Seddon said it was causing Labour to lose members amid criticism from the grassroots that the party was now 'in the pockets of the powerful and the rich'.
When he was made Science Minister, Lord Sainsbury resigned as Chairman of the Sainsbury's supermarket chain and put into a blind trust major investments in two plant genetics-related investment companies (Diatech Ltd and Innotech Investments Ltd). Innotech has a substantial stake in a firm called Paradigm Genetics involved in a joint GM-related venture with Monsanto. Between 1996 and 1999 Diatech was granted three patents for GM products that are said to have the potential to make millions of pounds in royalties.
Through his Gatsby Charitable Foundation Lord Sainsbury has also put millions into the study of plant genetics. Gatsby gives approximately £2 million a year to the Sainsbury Laboratory of the John Innes Centre, which does research into GM crops. Lord Sainsbury helped found the Laboratory in 1987 and his Gatsby Foundation remains its principal source of funding, although it also receives over £800,000 a year from the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council (BBSRC) , for which Sainsbury is responsible in his ministerial role. Its grant has increased several fold during Sainsbury's time as minister.
Like his biotech investments, his Gatsby contributions were administered through a blind trust run by his solicitor Judith Portrait after Sainsbury became UK Science Minister. Portrait is also a Gatsby trustee. Although he did not attend Gatsby meetings or make decisions during this period, Sainsbury retained the power to appoint and dismiss its trustees.
For some, the choice of an unelected biotech investor and food industrialist to be Science Minister, based within the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), was more than emblematic of the UK's corporate-science culture. While Lord Sainsbury was officially supposed to leave the room whenever GMOs are discussed at government meetings, even if this occurs, critically related areas like the strategic direction and the funding of the bio-sciences and of biotech related institutes fell directly within Sainsbury's area of responsibility and influence. As The Times (Apr 17, 2002) noted, 'Suspicious minds looked at the 300 per cent increase in the government grant to the Sainsbury Laboratory and pondered whether this might be linked to the fact that Lord Sainsbury of Turville is the Science Minister.'
Sainsbury's biotech business interconnections with areas of his official responsibility were numerous. For instance, when Lord Sainsbury travelled to America as Science Minister in 1999, to research a report into biotechnology, he was accompanied by members of the BioIndustry Association, a lobby group for companies involved in GM food (the DTI helped pay their costs). His company, Diatech is an Associate Member of the BioIndustry Association.
Eight days before he became Science Minister he loaned Diatech money to buy a £2 million office in Westminster. Diatech has registered a patent for a genetic sequence taken from the tobacco mosaic virus for use in genetically modified plants. This was developed at the Sainsbury Laboratory by Mike Wilson who is still a consultant to Diatech.
In a Financial Times article, Lord Sainsbury cites the following statistics: British universities spun off 199 companies in 2000, up from an annual average of 67 in the previous five years and a mere 'handful' before that. The UKs ratio of companies to research spending is now more than six times higher than the US. 'Its a dazzling record,' Lord Sainsbury is quoted as saying and he laments the nations failure to celebrate such a 'stunning change in the entrepreneurial attitudes of our universities'.
Not everybody shares Sainsbury's enthusiasm. Professor Steven Rose of the Open University Biology Dept is among those who have commented critically on this emerging corporate science culture, Well I think there is a very real problem from the point of view of university research in the way that private companies have entered the university, both with direct companies in the universities and with contracts to university researchers. So that in fact the whole climate of what might be open and independent scientific research has disappeared, the old idea that universities were a place of independence has gone. Instead of which one's got secrecy, one's got patents, one's got contracts and one's got