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Serious questions remain about the relationship between the CSIRO and its funders
Serious questions remain about the relationship between the CSIRO and its funders
CSIRO's sacked GE critic

This week, ABC television program “Australian Story” told the story of Dr Maarten Stapper, one of Australia’s leading specialists on organic farming. It’s an insight into how public interest science is being undermined by vested interest.

Dr Stapper worked for the CSIRO for 23 years before he was sacked for criticising genetically engineered (GE) crops. He claims that senior CSIRO management bullied and harassed him in an effort to gag his criticisms of GE crops. He was forced to leave in March 2007, when his position with CSIRO’s plant industry division was made redundant.

“I could have continued working for the CSIRO but I would have to give up all my beliefs about good agriculture and keep my mouth shut about GE,” Stapper said. “I didn’t want that because I have a connection with the farming community and they trust me.”

It’s not the only time the CSIRO has been accused of gagging it scientists. Earlier this year, a group of CSIRO senior climate scientists reportedly defied a CSIRO gag order preventing them from speaking out on Australia’s proposed greenhouse reduction targets. Similar accusations were levelled at the CSIRO in 2006.

Stories like these raise serious questions about the relationship between the CSIRO and its funders. Researchers at the CSIRO and universities across Australia have become increasingly reliant on industry funding. This has resulted in the gradual erosion of science for the public good in favour of science for corporate profit.

Did I mention vested interest? The CSIRO has a number of patents on GE crops, as well as strategic partnerships with several GE crop companies. The strong reach of biotechnology companies into the research community does not bode well for public interest science. A survey of US scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health funded saw 15.5% of respondents admitting they had changed the design, methodology or results of a study in response to pressure from a funding source, while 12.5% admitted overlooking others’ use of flawed data. The surveys findings are consistent with a number of recent studies that found industry funding distorts research priorities, methods and conclusions.

Claims that Dr Stapper was sacked because of his views on GE have been rejected by the CSIRO. However, the assistant chief of plant industry, Dr Mark Peoples, admitted that a mediator was used in 2004 to resolve a dispute between Dr Stapper and the then head of the plant industry division, Dr Jim Peacock. Dr Peacock has referred to opponents of genetic engineering as “unprincipled minorities” who spread false facts and hype.

We’ll let you be the judge.

Related links
» Video: Watch the Australian Story episode on Dr Stapper.
» Article: “CSIRO ‘dumps’ anti-GM expert”, The Age
» Article: “GM critics ignorant, says chief scientist”, The Age

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