Prof Mike Wilson is currently Chief Executive of Horticulture Research International (HRI), the UK government's main testing and development arm for market gardening, fruit and related crops. Prior to HRI he was the Deputy Director of the Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI).
In the 1980s he spent six years in the Department of Virus Research at the John Innes Centre. His research into plant viruses led to considerable commercial interest and inventorship on five independent suites of internationally-granted or pending patents for general biotechnological applications. One project he undertook while at the JIC, relating to a commonly used viral promoter in GM crops, was funded by Lord Sainsbury's GM investment company Diatech.
Wilson is still a consultant to Diatech. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and served on the UK Government's GM Science Review Panel. He is also an advisor to the Science Media Centre and, like a number of other leading GM proponents, is an advisory board member of the anti-environmental Scientific Alliance. He is also on the advisory council of the controversial pro-GM lobby group Sense About Science.
Another example of Wilson's willingness to align himself with openly anti-environmental/pro-corporate lobbyists was an article co-authored with John Hillman defending GM crops for the book Fearing Food (1999), edited by Julian Morris and Roger Bate. The article attacks the critics of GM crops as 'activists' who 'raise speculative risks' and promote 'misinformation'.
Wilson has moulded HRI in his own image, making it part of HRI's 'corporate policy' to improve the quality of information on GM technology available to the public, as he told the UK Parliament's Agriculture Select Committee:
'We have issued statements, we have had public meetings, I have written articles in various books, I have appeared in the media in debates on GM issues, as have many of my scientists. We have participated in everything from round-table discussions and debating societies, to radio broadcasts...'
In 2002 HRI's director of research, Brian Thomas, was a speaker at a Scientific Alliance conference on GM crops.
Wilson told the Select Committee that he saw it as the mission of himself and his scientists 'to try and defuse some of the mis-information that has unfortunately prevailed in the last couple of years.' He was then asked, 'So you are an evangelical organisation?' and replied, 'I am frequently called evangelical, yes!'
Wilson's evangelical contributions to the GM debate have
attracted serious criticism. In an article in the Scottish press, based on an interview he gave around the time he left SCRI, Wilson citied 'an independent U.S. survey, carried out by Cornell University' which 'showed that the use of GM crops in Northern America... encouraged more wildlife.' But the report in question, based on work not by Cornell researchers but by the industry-funded ISAAA, did not actually include any information about wildlife.
In a contribution to the BBC's science messageboard, widely circulated on the Internet, Wilson claimed that Quist and Chapela's paper on Mexican maize contamination, published in Nature, had been rejected by the majority of its peer reviewers. In reality, the majority of its peer reviewers had approved it for publication after a particularly stringent peer review process. Dr Arpad Pusztai's Lancet published research also successfully came through a particularly stringent peer review process but that hasn't stopped Wilson dismissing it as 'media-hyped junk science' from a 'victimised icon'. Wilson concludes his 'BBC' message, 'Battles of sound bites, and hysterical sensational propaganda claims get us nowhere.'
Wilson's GM evangelism has also impacted on the direction of HRI's research support for UK market gardening. GM has been put at the centre of HRI's science, as Wilson told MPs. 'We use GM. Genetic engineering, and genetic enhancement, is an incredibly important tool in the research laboratories of HRI across the organisation.'
Just as contentious has been Wilson's axing of HRI's successful Stockbridge House research station in the teeth of opposition from the horticultural industry, supported by the National Farmers' Union. According toThe Guardian, 'A leading research centre is facing closure in a move which has revived fears about scientific promotion of GM crops'. It noted that Stockbridge House had pioneered 'alternatives to genetic [manipulation] of plants.' A leading horticulturalist told MPs that the behaviour of Wilson and the HRI board over Stockbridge House was marked byGo to a Printer Friendly Page