The Institute of Ideas (IoI) says its mission is 'to expand the boundaries of public debate by organising conferences, discussions and salons, and publishing written conversations and exchanges.' Papers arising out of its events have been published in book form as part of a series called Debating Matters. Among the titles are, Science: can we trust the experts?, Designer Babies and Compensation Crazy.
It has been successful in drawing in to its events not just well-known names but leading British cultural and scientific institutions, like the Royal Society of Arts and the Royal Institution. It has been equally successful at drawing in commercial support from major corporations. A Genes and Society Festival in London in April 2003, for example, was held 'in association with Pfizer', the biotech/pharmaceutical giant. Also thanked for its assistance was CropLife International - a 'global federation' led by BASF, Bayer, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta. Biotech/pharmaceutical giant Novartis has also been mentioned as a source of funding (see below).
The IoI was launched in the summer of 2000 by Claire Fox, the sister of Fiona Fox, the director of the Science Media Centre. Shortly afterwards, Helene Guldberg, who with Fox had co-published the magazine LM, helped to launch the IoI's sister organisation, the online 'magazine' Spiked. Both claim to be about encouraging free speeech and a much more open-minded approach.
IoI operates out of LM 's old offices in Smithfield in London. LM, in turn, was a reincarnation of Living Marxism, the monthly review of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). Both Fox and Guldberg were leading members of the RCP.
While IoI claims to be all about opening up public debate and taking it beyond 'contemporary orthodoxies' that 'narrow discussion,' in reality its events are carefully crafted to create an appearance of free and lively debate as a vehicle for communicating LM/IoI's own narrow orthodoxies.
The construction of the events follows a set pattern. Well-known figures, who will help to draw in audiences, are invited to take part in events designed to promote the LM agenda. Invitations to speakers are sometimes made via third parties. The news broadcaster Jon Snow, according to a Guardian article, withdrew from an event to which he had been invited by the Royal Society of Arts after realising the IoI's involvement. Snow felt there was a lack of transparency. 'I didn't have a clear idea of who they were,' he said. This lack of transparency affects almost every aspect of IoI events, as the article notes: 'From the platforms and the floor, the LM line is assiduously promoted by the magazine's supporters and contributors - often without clear attribution of their affiliations.'
In the book of the debate of Compensation Crazy, for instance, we get the views of one of the contributors, Tracey Brown, presented simply as those of a 'Risk Analyst'. There is no disclosure of her long-term involvement with the political network behind LM/Spiked and IoI, to all of which she has contributed over the years. Moreover, the views Brown sets out as her own in the debate coincide exactly with the 'LM line' on the issue. The members of the network never go beyond their own orthodoxy.
Another example of how the IoI engineers events to promote its agenda is provided by its Genes & Society Festival in April 2003, an event organised by the IoI's Science and Society Director, Tony Gilland, assisted by Ellen Raphael, the Assistant Director of Sense About Science, amongst others.
Of the main contributors to the two day event around 15-20 are known to be part of the network behind LM/IoI. There was nothing in how they were presented, however, to alert either their fellow contributors or the audience to this. This is significant because those behind LM/IoI are fervently opposed to any restrictions on GM crops, cloning or other genetic technologies. But this shared vision is made to appear to the audience to be coming from a series of independent commentators presented as diverse individuals - a GP, a Professor of Sociology, a disability policy analyst, a science writer - or as representatives of diverse organisations - the Genetic Interest Group, Sense about Science, Cyberia etc.
IOI's Director, Claire Fox, said in an interview in The Times, 'The only explanation that some people can come up with for, for example, why Im a relatively enthusiastic supporter of GM (genetically modified) food must be that Im in the pay of the multinationals. It couldnt possibly be that I have intellectually decided, having looked at the evidence, that GM might be a way of solving some of the problems of the developing world, might be at least something that should be looked at. Its as though nobody believes any ideas any more. You must only have them because youve been bought off.'