Responses to Metz, Fütterer and Kaplinsky’s Correspondences in Nature, 27 June 2002
27 June 2002
In this document, I respond to Metz and Fütterer’s (Nature 417, 897 - 898 (2002)) and Kaplinsky’s (Nature 417, 898 (2002)) replies to the Correspondence by me, Strohman and Billings (Nature 417, 897 (2002)) regarding the Mexican maize transgenic introgression scandal, all published in the 27 June 2002 edition of Nature. See http://www.nature.com. Although the replies by these critics do not in my judgment represent a serious challenge to the validity of our statements, for the record I offer the following clarifications and responses:
§ These authors hold in common the assumption of being able to carry on scientific debate independently of economic relationships. Metz and Fütterer, for instance, baldly assert that “our connections to industry are irrelevant to the scientific issues”. In doing so, they blatantly disregard the reasons for the existence of disclosure policies, such as Nature’s, in addition to the plethora of research done by people such as Sheldon Krimsky into the ways in which economic and political interests play out in the production of scientific conclusions. Explorations into the social studies and history of science would go a long way toward dispelling this assumption for these and perhaps other scientists.
§ Accompanying their simple denial that their ties to industry may have influenced their participation in this debate is the false assumption that they would be conscious of all such influences and intend their consequences. Never have I or my co-authors asserted that any of the critique authors (or Nature) were conscious of these influences or acted with the intention of their own financial gain. For a more extensive treatment of the subtleties of this issue, please see our longer article at http://nature.berkeley.edu/~kenw/maize/compromised.htm.
§ Their replies depend on an unsupported attempt to separate the scientific process (of which their critiques have been a part) from the surrounding economic, political and other social circumstances, evidenced in Metz and Fütterer’s opening statement, “Our concern was exclusively over the quality of the scientific data and conclusions, which would have been the same whatever the motivation of the criticism.” We refer back to our extended analysis of the controversy (see http://nature.berkeley.edu/~kenw/maize/compromised.htm) and ask, If Metz, et. al., were really concerned only with the quality of scientific data and conclusions, why the public attacks? And, why did they so enthusiastically respond to the controversy when there are thousands of other qualified scientists (who had not been involved in an extended internal university-policy debate with Quist and Chapela) available to do so?
§ It is possible yet doubtful that Quist and Chapela were wrong to not disclose Chapela’s involvement with PANNA in their original paper. If Kaplinsky were to read Nature’s disclosure policy more carefully, he would find that it relates to ways in which an author may gain economically from a relationship with (or otherwise be materially supported by) an organization. It is highly doubtful that Professor Chapela can expect significant economic gain from involvement with a non-profit environmental organization; the opposite would seem more likely. Relationships with non-profit organizations (which by definition would not gain by an author’s publication of findings, and thus would presumably not be relevant to a disclosure policy) are not specifically mentioned in Nature’s policy.
§ It is disingenuous of Metz and Fütterer to allege a grudge between Chapela and Syngenta/Novartis and to simultaneously state that it would be useless to introduce such information. Also, they should provide evidence for the existence of such a grudge if they wish to imply that there is such a thing.
§ Metz and Fütterer attempt to downplay Fütterer’s connection to TMRI and the CNR/TMRI controversy: “the other's (J. F.) alleged link to TMRI relies entirely on someone else's former Berkeley association”. In point of fact, that “someone else” is Wilhelm Gruissem, Fütterer’s current research director (presumably at least aware of, if not active in supporting, directing or condoning Fütterer’s engagement in this debate), and principle architect of the CNR/TMRI relationship, whose current lab’s web site asserts that it is in partnership with TMRI. These are not trivial facts in this controversy.
§ Metz and Fütterer’s statement that “Both of us currently have research funding exclusively from the public sector.” conflicts with the recent sponsorship by Novartis of research by Fütterer. Note that Nature’s disclosure policy also refers to expected and future arrangements.
§ Metz and Fütterer say “Worthy et al. wrongly imply that private-sector funding strips us of integrity and legitimacy in the arena of scientific discourse.” More precisely, our claim is quite explicitly that financial and other relationships compromise the positions and perceptions of independence and objectivity of some of the scientists involved in the Mexican maize controversy. We do not imply that anyone is stripped of all integrity. The main implication following from our conclusions is that scientists with significant outside interests should either declare those interests or excuse themselves from participation in the debate. It is hardly a “threat to academic freedom” to call for these things; just the opposite is true.
§ Reminiscent of the use of detail to obfuscate the validity of conclusions in the original critiques, Kaplinsky states at the beginning that “Worthy and co-authors are incorrect.” implying that this is the case simply because two of his co-authors, according to him, did not receive any industry funding. Even if this is true, it does not change in the slightest the result that Kaplinsky, et. al., according to Nature’s disclosure policies, should have disclosed that at least some of them receive ag-biotech industry funding. Incidentally, demonstrating that two of his co-authors did not receive any TMRI funding might prove tricky given the way that TMRI funding to graduate students in the PMB department is pooled. In any event, if it does turn out to be untrue that two of them have in the past, do currently or expect to in the future receive such funding, I apologize on behalf of myself and my co-authors for the commission.
References for the above claims can be found in our longer paper on the controversy: http://nature.berkeley.edu/~kenw/maize/compromised.htm.