The Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC) 'seeks to establish a 'serious, rational and calm debate' on GM to counteract 'deceitful, agenda-driven campaigning'. It is for this reason that the SIRC is working 'in conjuction with the Royal Institution, to seek a remedy to this dangerous state of affairs.'
The SIRC, in the words of a profile in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), 'fosters the image of an ultraconcerned public spirited group' and of 'a heavy-weight research body'. In fact, it is neither.
As the BMJ notes, 'on closer inspection it transpires that this research organisation shares the same offices, directors and leading personnel as a commercial market research company called MCM Research.' Both are based at the same Oxford address.
SIRC has received funding from the food and drinks industry (e.g. Bestfoods, the giant US food group now part of Unilever) as well as from its sister organisation MCM Research Ltd. whose clients come from the food, drinks, oil and pharmaceutical industries.
On its website MCM says that it is 'well-known for its research aimed at positive communication and PR initiatives'. Its website used to be more explicit about what it had to offer: 'Do your PR initiatives sometimes look too much like PR initiatives? MCM conducts social/psychological research on the positive aspects of your business... The results do not read like PR literature... Our reports are credible, interesting and entertaining in their own right. This is why they capture the imagination of the media and your customers.'
The SIRC set up a Forum to lay down guidelines for journalists and scientists on how they should report science stories in the media. It was co-convened with the Royal Institution whose director, Susan Greenfield, is also an advisor to the SIRC. Among those taking part in the Forum were Food Standards Agency chief Sir John Krebs, David Boak of the Royal Society, Lord Taverne, and Mike Fitzpatrick - a stalwart of the Living Marxism network.
In September 2000, Guidelines on Science and Health Communication for the media were published. These guidelines were later fused with a separate but similar set of advice developed by the Royal Society .
The Guidelines focus on how to avoid overstating risk and alarming the public. They have nothing to say about the danger of understating risk, i.e. the kind of false reassurances that go to the heart of the BSE crisis.
The Guidelines, similarly, have little to say about the dangers stemming from conflicts of interest, arising through industry funding of research, etc. This despite a whole series of recent scandals centring on the issue of how commercial interests can undermine free, fair and objective communication about science.
In the words of the Editor of the BMJ, 'These competing interests are very important. It has quite a profound influence on the conclusions.' The BMJ asked SIRC co-director and MCM consultant, Kate Fox, whether she didn't think SIRC faced a conflict of interest in laying down how science should be reported. 'No, I don't think so,' Fox told the BMJ. 'The kinds of work we have done at MCM have been fairly worthy things... They are fairly uncontroversial'.
But in 2003 the BMJ turned its attention again to the SIRC, noting how the organisation HRT Aware had commissioned the SIRC to produce a report which 'last month won a Communiqué award from the magazine Pharmaceutical Marketing in the public relations and medical education category. SIRC's research linked the improved lives of modern day postmenopausal women to HRT.' It led to 'widespread-and supportive-media coverage in the UK'. The Evening Standard, for instance, ran the headline, HRT 'leads to better sex and a happy healthy life'.
But, like virtually all the other media coverage of the SIRC report, the article made no mention of the fact that the SIRC's report had been commissioned by a front group for the pharmaceutical industry, and that it formed part of an industry-fashioned campaign.
Revealingly, the Forum that drew up the guidelines on science and health reporting, did not include anybody from the BMJ or the Lancet, nor the British Medical Association (BMA), all of whom have been very alert to the issues surrounding conflict of interest. The BMA has also been cautious over the GM issue. The Lancet published Dr Arpad Pusztai and Prof Stanley Ewen's research showing adverse effects from GM potatoes. It's editor has also been critical of the Royal Society and the tactics it has adopted in its repeated attacks on Dr Pusztai and his research.
However, while the The Lancet, the BMJ and the BMA were all absent from the Forum, it managed to include several fairly obscure clinicians, suggesting attitude rather than eminence was the real basis of selection. Forum-member Dr Roger Fiskin provides a case in point. He first came to public notice with a letter to Private Eye: 'Prof. Krebs is right and you are wrong: the whole GM debate in the British media has been a disaster as far as public information is concerned. The experiments carried out by Puztai were, in scientific terms, a pile of steaming horse-shit'. (Private Eye, 24 March 2000, p14)
This savage disparagement of Pusztai's wor