Professor Terje Traavik is in a rare and privileged position in the world of GM research. As scientific director of Norway’s GenØk Centre for Biosafety, he presides over the only research institution in the field of gene ecology which is completely independent of funding from bio-tech companies like Monsanto.
Professor Traavik has been claiming for years in speeches given all over the world that 95 percent of scientists working within relevant GM research areas (genetic engineering, molecular biology and genetics, synthetic biology) are directly, or indirectly, working for the bio-tech industry, whereas only 5 percent are independent.
Despite widespread reports of the intimidation of scientists who produce ‘inconvenient’ results, Professor Traavik says intimidation is usually unnecessary.
“The scientific establishment is more than ever just that: an establishment. Monsanto et al do not need to intimidate the majority of scientists, because they are already on board their teams. That is why there is no shortage of techniques, methods and technologies within life sciences, but there is a shortage of critical minds and original hypotheses,” he said.
The sheer weight of industry money, allied to widespread cuts in education funding, makes it hard to resist corporate cash. But companies like Monsanto are far more interested in production-oriented research than research about potential risks, Professor Traavik says. “The ratio of funding is 1000:1 in favour of production,” he said.
A more complex perspective on scientific objectivity comes from Elson Shields, a Professor of entomology at Cornell University. Professor Shields admits that most university research into GMs is funded by Monsanto, or other bio-techs, but he argues that the science can still be independent.
Professor Shields, however, agrees with Professor Traavik that independent research is desirable in the field of GM crops, but is hindered by the fact that scientists cannot buy bags of biotech seed and do independent research because of legal restrictions on the use of patented varieties.
As a result of these concerns, Professor Shields, and 23 other leading corn insect scientists working at public research institutions, sent a statement to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) saying that data on GMs was “unduly limited”.
Professor Shields stresses that the public exposure of the issues by the group - which has led to easier access to seeds - did not mean they were opposed to GM foods.
Professor Shields acknowledges, however, that some of the younger research scientists he works with are concerned that their public views could affect their careers if companies denied them access to patented traits and new varieties.
Professor Shields says that as a result of the group’s public stand – and the attendant negative publicity for the bio-techs in the New York Times – since 2010 public scientists in research institutions across the US can conduct “a wide range of independent research with minimal restrictions on commercially available GM varieties under broad legal agreements negotiated with their institutions and the GM companies”.
But these public institutions are still a small minority in the US, and many scientists still fear a corporate backlash if they publish undesirable results. They hear having access to seeds removed, or smear attacks. This has already happened to a significant number of scientists.