Freedom to speak

  First published in Organic NZ, March/April 2010, Vol 69 No 2 -

 Reprinted here with permission from Physicians and Scientists for Global Responsibility (PSGR) who provide the material for the ONZ Science Watch page -



When an employee releases information that exposes a serious, questionable situation or wrongdoing, the informant is usually labelled a whistleblower1 and accused of misconduct, and will almost certainly face reprisals. Their ‘misconduct’ could be claimed a violation of law, rule or regulation, and/or a direct threat to public interest, such as fraud, health and safety violations, even corruption.

In 1994, Neil Pugmire, a nurse at Lake Alice Hospital in Rangitikei, expressed concern over the management of dangerous psychiatric patients being released into the community. When he received no satisfactory response from his employers, he went public. Jeffrey Wigand divulged that US tobacco company executives knew that cigarettes were addictive and approved the addition of carcinogenic ingredients.2 Sherron Watkins reportedly provided the information that brought down Enron.3 Google “Whistleblowers” - the list is long.

In 1991, Swiss food scientist, Hans Hertel, and an associate, published a research paper showing that significant changes occurred in the blood of volunteers who had ingested foods cooked in a microwave oven.4 Court action directed Hertel not to speak out about his concerns. In August 1998, the European Court of Human Rights pronounced the “gag” order contrary to his right to freedom of expression.

From 1995 to 1998, Árpád Pusztai ran experiments on potatoes genetically engineered with a gene to express a snowdrop lectin, a protein he had previously shown to be toxic to insects, but harmless to mammals. Subsequently, Pusztai found that rats fed on the raw and cooked transgenic potatoes did in fact show damage, to their intestines and immune systems. Rats fed on conventional potatoes did not. When he revealed his worries about what would happen when humans ingested the GE potatoes, Pusztai was sacked from the Rowett Research Institute at Aberdeen, Scotland, where he had worked for thirty years. During those years, he had been lauded internationally as a foremost expert on plant lectins, and had written some 270 papers and three books on the subject.

In 1996, Kirk Azevedo5 was employed by Monsanto to sell its RoundupReady and Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) varieties of transgenic cotton. (Organic farmers use the natural form of the bacterium as an insecticide.) In 1997, a Monsanto scientist told Azevedo that engineering the RoundupReady gene into one variety had also transferred unknown proteins not normally produced in the plant. Proteins can cause allergic reactions and Azevedo unsuccessfully raised his concerns with top Monsanto staff, the California Agriculture Commissioners, and the University of California. He said no one seemed to “really grasp what untoward effects might be created by the genetic engineering process itself.”5 Agricultural labourers have reported allergic reactions from Bt cotton, some being hospitalised6 and farm animals have died as a result of continuous grazing on transgenic cotton plants.7

Jane Akers and Steve Wilson, when news reporters for Fox TV in Tampa, Florida, were sacked for refusing to modify their findings of dangerous side effects in an investigative report on rBGH, Monsanto’s recombinant bovine growth hormone. Company lawyers told Fox they would sue if the programme ran.8 Jane and Steve took the news worldwide, including a visit to New Zealand.

When faced with fears that their science may be misused or abused, does a researcher have a moral and/or scientific duty to speak out?  It takes courage to blow the whistle and expose a serious, questionable wrongdoing, especially when commercial interests are given priority; Pugmire, Pusztai, Azevedo, Akers, Wilson, and others have been sacked because they spoke out.

Whistleblowers and the Law

Whistleblowers are promised protection from the NZ Protected Disclosures Amendment Act 20099 if they believe, on reasonable grounds, that the information provided relates to serious wrongdoings, even if that belief is later found to be mistaken. Under the Act, government agencies should be more coordinated and effective, and be able to hold the government to account.

In Australia, Whistleblowers Anonymous1 supports initiatives and ongoing efforts to create a culture where people can speak out without reprisal.

The Government Accountability Project is a US whistleblower protection group. In 2007, a GAP Food and Drug Safety Officer told Sustainable Food News that the organic food industry is ripe for whistleblower protection.10

Scientific freedom

In 2002, the British medical journal, the Lancet (Vol. 359, #9308, 2 March) reported that the UK and US governments were moving to restrict scientific freedom, giving the protection of national security as a reason. How would such a move affect researchers?

At the time of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification (2000/2001), several NZ scientists told PSGR they were warned by their employer not to make public any concerns about genetic engineering and their research projects. Does this constitute a ban on scientific freedom?

In NZ, the purpose of our Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) is to undertake research for the benefit of New Zealand and to exhibit a sense of social responsibility in the interests of the community.11 (Our italics.) Do the CRIs mention ‘scientific freedom’ on their websites? The University of Otago does briefly12 and the Association of University Staff (AUS) talks of ‘scientific freedom’ in the essay ‘Academic Freedom and Institutional Autonomy in New Zealand Universities’ by Donald C Savage (Chapter 11). In its submission to the RCGM, the NZ Wool Board stated: “The scientific method of truth seeking involves values of high integrity, objectivity, honesty,free expressionand detachment (our italics).”

We have to look to organizations of scientists for the promotion of scientific freedom. It is the subject of article 15 ¶ 3 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights acknowledges it: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.”

Sharing of information, integrity and accountability – will they continue?

There has been a time-honoured free interchange of information between researchers. Scientists acknowledge that discussion can be where breakthroughs happen. Openness is essential. It is not unusual for scientists on several continents to collaborate on a research project at a distance. Now that government funding is shrinking worldwide and commercial sponsors are financing research projects, where does this sharing of information, and integrity and accountability stand? 

The Report of the Canada’s Royal Society Expert Panel on the Future of Biotechnology (2001) noted growing evidence of university researchers creating “unprecedented ties with industry partners” and the “profound impact” this was having on the choice of research topics.13

In 2003-2004, research by the UK’s Institute of Professionals, Managers and Civil Servants found that one in three government-funded laboratories had been asked to modify their conclusions or advice to suit the customer’s preferred outcome (17%), obtain further contracts (10%), or prevent publication (3%).14

Dr Tom Wakeford, a Research Fellow at the Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Institute (PEALS), has said that Britain needed new measures that guaranteed the accountability of scientists. The editor of Science and Public Affairs withdrew Dr Wakeford’s regular column, covering events in 2002, claiming Fellows of the Royal Society would object to the contents. Dr Wakeford subsequently found that some of the magazine’s funding came from the Society. 

Until the 1960s, every issue of the Society’s journal, Philosophical Transactions, reportedly carried a notice stating: “It is an established rule of the Royal Society ... never to give their opinion, as a Body, upon any subject.” The society’s website describes it as “the independent” and “dedicated to promoting excellence in science.” It has long been funded by taxpayers – close to 70% in recent years from Parliamentary Grant in Aid – but its Annual Review in 1998-1999 (p.26) showed that funding had also come from Rhône Poulenc and Glaxo-Welcome which both have interests in biotechnology. Today, 13.1% comes “from donations from companies and trusts” and included in the list are the biotech companies, AstraZeneca plc and Pfizer Limited.15

In New Zealand, the government still supports a portion of research.  The University of Auckland uses external funding from such as the Heart Foundation, the Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering (AINSE) and the (US) National Institutes of Health.16  In December last, HortResearch and Crop & Food Research became Plant * Food Research, and its website refers to "commercial partnerships".17 HortResearch’s pipfruit breeding is equally funded by the government body, the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology (FRST), and Prevar™ Limited, a consortium of commercial partners.

It seems likely that commercial funding of research will increase. Will it affect the selection of projects and/or the perceived results? Scientists complain that the subjects currently attracting funding tend to follow latest developments - e.g. genetic engineering, nanotechnology and synthetic biology - often, they claim, to the detriment of other valid and necessary research.







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6. New Scientist 175 21-9-02, p.25.





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14. The Ecologist, Vol 30, No.5 (July - August 2000), p56. ‘The Appliance of Science.’





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