GeneWatch UK today warned that the idea that science will underpin a new 'knowledge-based economy' is deeply flawed and has eroded public trust.
"The biotech barons have got out their begging bowl again, but they always promise jam tomorrow, never jam today", said Dr Wallace, "Brown bet billions on a new biotech economy, but most biotech is going bust".
Within a year, many of Britain's biotech companies are expected to run out of money (1), and drug company pipelines are empty. Most companies raised capital on the back of promises and patents rather than real products. Yet, science minister Lord Drayson continues to argue that, with more investment, biotech "can provide the growth and jobs that will help rebalance our economy" (2). Drayson is one of the 'Biotech Barons' who helped fund New Labour and persuaded Brown to spend over 12 billion pounds on electronic medical records linked to DNA as Britain's 'unique selling point' in the knowledge-based economy (3).
"The so-called biotech economy is littered with false promises that genetics is the answer to cancer, obesity, hunger and crime," said Dr Wallace. "As the Government pours billions into biotech, the social, economic and environmental problems that we need to tackle have been sidelined and ignored".
Science, including genetics, can bring new insights and discoveries, but the current focus of research is on patenting discoveries and creating spin out companies, rather than improving understanding or solving real problems. The science funding system leads researchers to make exaggerated claims about the benefits of their research, and undermines the important role that science plays in developing new theories and assessing evidence. It also focuses research on what's patentable and profitable, not on human need.
Many people are enthusiastic about science and want to help medical research, but they don't trust research priorities to be chosen in the public interest (4). People also think they should be asked for their consent to take part in medical research (5). Yet, ministers have such blind faith in the idea of a genetic revolution in health care that they are planning to pass confidential medical record data and DNA to commercial companies without consent (3).
"Good science is about asking questions, not about accepting that Professor Sir this-or-that knows what's best for Britain", said Dr Wallace. "No politician will win the next election by treating people with contempt".
Examples of exaggerated promises include:
Human genome screening.
The idea of screening people's genes and targeting lifestyle advice or medication at people who are 'genetically susceptible' was invented by scientists funded by the tobacco industry, who wanted people to believe (falsely) that lung cancer was in their genes. It has since been backed by the pharmaceutical, food and private healthcare industries, who want to expand the market for medication and new 'functional foods' to rich, healthy people. However, genes are poor predictors of most diseases in most people and no common genetic variations exist which meet medical screening criteria (3).
The purple genetically-modified (GM) tomato
The widely promoted "cancer preventing" genetically modified tomato, contains enhanced levels of an antioxidant called anthocyanin. Claims about health benefits have been based on a single study conducted in mice. Yet a recent review of medical evidence found that most early studies of better tested antioxidants had been wrong and that there was no evidence of benefit and some evidence of harm (4).
Feeding the world with GM crops
GM Golden rice - the much-hyped solution to vitamin A deficiency in children - was only donated to poor farmers after two major clinical trials (published in 1994 and 1996) found that its main ingredient, beta-carotene, increased the risk of cancer in smokers and asbestos workers. Its advocates have never properly assessed either its benefits or its potential harms (4).
In December 2007, former Chief Scientist Professor Sir David King admitted that a project he had claimed was using GM crops to help farmers in Africa, was in fact not using GM plants at all, but agro-ecological farming methods (5).
For further information contact:
Dr Helen Wallace: 01298-24300 (office); 07903-311584 (mobile)
Notes for editors:
(1) Speech by Dr Peter Ringrose to the Foundation of Science and Technology, 4th February 2008. Available on: http://www.foundation.org.uk/events/pdf/20090204_Ringrose.pdf
Research by the Harvard economist Professor Gary Pisano has shown that even floated biotech companies, let alone small spin-out companies backed by venture capital, have brought no benefit to the global economy, and without the largest US company, Amgen, have overall lost money.
(2) Speech by Lord Drayson to the Foundation of Science and Technology, 4th February 2008. Available on: http://www.foundation.org.uk/events/pdf/20090204_Drayson.pdf
(3) A GeneWatch report on the history of the idea of building a genetic database in the NHS is available on: (large file): http://www.genewatch.org/uploads/f03c6d66a9b354535738483c1c3d49e4/UK_Biobank_fin_1.pdf
A shorter briefing for MPs, including how this plan relates to the data-sharing proposals in the Coroners and Justice Bill, is on: http://www.genewatch.org/uploads/f03c6d66a9b354535738483c1c3d49e4/MPs_brief_CJB_fin_1.pdf
(4) Research conducted by the Science Horizons project reported a "striking trust deficit" and that some people saw expert priorities for research investments as inevitably not the same as those of the average citizen. Available on: http://www.sciencehorizons.org.uk/resources/sciencehorizons_deliberative_panel.pdf
(5) From research conducted by the MRC/Wellcome Trust. See MRC Press Release on: http://www.mrc.ac.uk/Newspublications/News/MRC003811
(6) A review of the evidence on anti-oxidants is available on: http://www.cochrane.org/reviews/en/ab007176.html
(7) Poulter S (2007) Scientist who claimed GM crops could solve Third World hunger admits he got it wrong. Daily Mail. 18th December 2007. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-503339/Scientist-claimed-GM-crops-solve-Third-World-hunger-admits-got-wrong.html