The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK's public funding body for research and training in the 'non-medical life sciences', and one of the seven Research Councils sponsored through the UK Government's Office of Science and Technology.
Established in 1994 to replace the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC), the BBSRC has an annual budget of £220m (in 2002). Whereas the SERCs mandate was to advance science in general, the BBSRCs purpose is far narrower: 'to sustain a broad base of interdisciplinary research and training to help industry, commerce and Government create wealth'.
This role developed out of a 1993 government white paper on science, Realizing our Potential, which was intended to 'produce a better match between publicly funded strategic research and the needs of industry'. As part of this, the research funding councils were to be obliged to develop 'more extensive and deeper links' with industry, and 'to recruit more of their senior staff from industry'.
Thus, despite being a public funding body, the BBSRC's chairman until January 2002 was Peter Doyle, a director of biotech giant Syngenta and the former executive director of GM company Zeneca (now part of Syngenta). Doyle originally took up his BBSRC post while still Zeneca's executive director.
Doyle's replacement as Chief Executive was Prof Julia Goodfellow, the wife of geneticist Dr Peter Goodfellow, head of discovery research at biotech/ pharmaceutical GlaxoSmithKline. Currently, GlaxoSmithKline also has 3 represntatives sitting on BBSRC boards. They are far from the only representatives of large corporations. Syngenta sits on 3 boards, AstraZeneca on 2, Pfizer on 4, and Unilever on 2. Also represented are Genetix plc, Lilly and Merck Sharp & Dohme. In these circumstances it is perhaps not surprising that biotechnology has been swallowing up the lions share of the BBSRC's research funds.
In January 1999, the BBSRC set aside £15m for 'a new initiative to help British researchers win the race to identify the function of key genes'. In July the same year, £19m was to be spent on new research facilities to 'underpin the economic and environmental sustainability of agriculture in the UK' through 'work on genetically modified crops'. In October, £11m was allocated to projects that would enable the UK 'to remain internationally competitive in the development of gene-based technologies'.
The BBSRC has also won an extra £50 million in funding since Lord Sainsbury became Science Minister. There has also been a 300 per cent increase in the grant given by the BBSRC to the Sainsbury Laboratory of the John Innes Centre in Norwich, which has over the years also benefitted from Lord Sainsbury's personal support and investment. The JIC is a plant biotechnology centre with major research alliances with Dupont and, until recently, Syngenta.
The JIC is one of eight strategic life sciences research institutes in the UK for which the BBSRC provides core funding. Among the other institutes are the Roslin Institute (former home of Dolly the sheep), the Institute of Food Research (see Mike Gasson), Rothamsted Research (formerly the Institute of Arable Crops Research), the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research, and Horticulture Research International (HRI),
headed by Prof Mike Wilson.
The BBSRC has been accused of instituting what has been called 'a gagging order' via the BBSRC code that prevents all publicly funded researchers from speaking out on concerns about GM foods by defining this as becoming 'involved in political controversy on biotechnology and biological sciences'. Disobeying leaves researchers, including even retired staff who are Fellows of BBSRC funded institutes, open to being sued or dismissed. The reality is, of course, that this is a one way street where scientists at or formerly atsuch institutes can (and do) hype GM to their hearts' content. For instance, several of the scientists who work for the biotech industry funded lobby group Cropgen simultaneously work for or are Fellows of BBSRC-funded institutes. The BBSRC's controls are aimed strictly at the sceptics.
It is also from BBSRC institutes, like the JIC and the IFR, that the government draws many of its key advisers on GM - for example, Mike Gasson who heads the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes and who also has a seat on ACRE.
On taking up her appointment as the BBSRC's Chief Executive, Prof Goodfellow made it clear that it was business as usual and that agricultural biotechnology would not be neglected. 'Across the full remit of BBSRC research we can see important advances that will increase prosperity and enhance the quality of life for all. Not least among these is agricultural research where the BBSRC will be able to contribute across many areas to the future of this important industry.'
However, the BBSRC's strategy of encouraging biotechnology industry investment into UK agricultural research had completely failed by summer 2004 when Syngenta, the only major firm still working on GM agriculture in the UK, announced it was moving all its GM-related operations