To the Editor:
You recently published an article titled “Under Fire, National Academies Toughen Conflict-of-Interest Policies” (The Chronicle, April 25). A premise of the article is that this toughening was triggered by claims of personal conflicts of interest “tainting” the Academies’ report on genetically engineered crops (GE crops) that we authored.
The Academies have already gone on record to dispute this false claim, but our concern is that you have specifically sown undeserved doubt about the credibility of the GE crops report by uncritically conveying claims made in one article (PLoS ONE 12(2):e0172317) without considering a larger body of evidence contradicting that article’s conclusions. For example, no mention was made of leaders of 15 academic societies (ecology, sociology, economics, toxicology, science ethics, and agriculture) who independently examined the report and published an article titled “National Academies Report Has Broad Support” (Nature Biotechnology 35, 304). That strong endorsement is inconsistent with your conclusion that the National Academies “reputation has been challenged” because of the GE crops report.
Readers of The Chronicle are an important audience for the GE crops report: Undergraduate and graduate courses have already utilized the 606-page report as a reliable source of information. Acceptance of your assertions could diminish these and other important uses of the report, so we are writing to explain the process that we and the Academies used to develop a rigorous report that guarded against the impacts of individual biases.
During the course of our work, we listened to presentations from 80 individuals with diverse perspectives on GE crops. We made special efforts to hear from people and organizations that had major concerns about these crops so we could be sure to examine those concerns in our report. We received over 700 comments from the public during the course of our deliberations and responded to them in the report. Because some people do not trust studies by corporations, we reported first author affiliations for over 900 articles used in the report, as well as the source of research funding whenever possible.
The National Academies did check for conflicts of interest within our 20-member committee based on the Academies’ criteria, and they found none. However, the Academies’ scrutiny of the report for bias didn’t stop there. Once our committee had a draft report it was sent to 26 reviewers with diverse expertise and perspectives. The 918 comments/criticisms from these reviewers had to be addressed to the satisfaction of a National Academies’ independent review board before the report could move forward for the Academies’ approval. External review of the report by leaders of diverse academic societies added another layer to the examination.
Although the broad issue of how to assess conflict of interest is beyond our scope here, we want to address specific conclusions you made about conflicts within our committee. You echo the PLoS article in stating that six members of our committee had “grant support or patentable discoveries [that] suggested alliances with producers of genetically modified organisms.” We wish that before making such a blanket statement, you had done due diligence to assess this conclusion. As an example, one of the six members with alleged “alliances,” Dr. Carol Mallory-Smith, has long been critical of measures taken by companies to guard against gene flow from GE crops to wild plants. The only reason she had a grant from a corporation was because that corporation was required by USDA regulators to have surveys performed to check for gene flow. Does this grant suggest an alliance with the corporation?
Similarly, before accepting the blanket statement that “None of the 20 panel members could be found to have any significant alliances with groups skeptical of GMOs,” we wish you would have investigated the chair of the committee who helped the Union of Concerned Scientists by writing a substantial section of their report that was critical of company and government approaches for deploying GE crops. Other committee members have published criticisms of risk assessments and past socio/economic analyses of GE crops. Yet others on the committee have made basic discoveries that have led to development of GE crops or are developing plants or methods that in the future may have commercial application. We think that this diversity in our committee strengthened our deliberations and the accuracy of our report. The report and accompanying materials are free for download from our website. Please judge for yourself.
Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine