The controversy surrounding Quist and Chapela's findings of transgenic introgression in Mexican maize1,2,3,4 is taking place within webs of political and financial influence that compromise the objectivity of their critics.
The eight authors of the two published criticisms1,2 of Quist and Chapela's paper4 have had all or part of their research funded by the Torrey Mesa Research Institute (TMRI), an offspring of the agricultural biotechnology company Novartis (now Syngenta).
The affiliation of seven of those authors with TMRI is a result of that company's $25-million 'strategic alliance' with the University of California (UC), Berkeley's College of Natural Resources. Wilhelm Gruissem, formerly of UC, Berkeley and architect of the strategic alliance, whose laboratory is in partnership with TMRI, is the supervisor of the eighth author, Johannes Fütterer. None of the eight authors declares this funding as a competing financial interest in their published contributions.
Such a funding arrangement might be less noteworthy had Chapela and Quist not been leading critics of the strategic alliance and its implications for scientific freedom and balance. Their vocal opposition to the alliance jeopardized a large flow of financial support for the authors of the criticisms.
Compromised positions extend beyond those of these critics. Nature Publishing Group actively integrates its interests with those of companies invested in agricultural and other biotechnology, such as Novartis, AstraZeneca and other 'sponsorship clients', soliciting them to “promote their corporate image by aligning their brand with the highly respected Nature brand” (see http://npg.nature.com). These partnerships seem to us to challenge Nature's ability to provide a neutral forum for scientific debates on agricultural biotechnology.
Nature's editorial note disavowing Quist and Chapela's work in the same issue as the technical exchanges1,2,3 was unorthodox and unnecessary. The usual scientific process of contestation should have been permitted to proceed, using Quist and Chapela's claims and data alone to repeat, verify or refute their findings. Because of its potential effect on regulatory policy, publication of the technical exchanges and Nature's editorial note immediately before the UNEP Convention on Biological Diversity meeting and discussions of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (where Nature's editorial note was mentioned) further undermines the journal's stance as uncompromised by commercial interests.
In such an environment, it is difficult to imagine fair consideration being given to work that challenges commercially vested interests and the assumptions of reductionist molecular biology. Quist and Chapela's paper obviously represents such a challenge. That fact — not the quality of their work — together with the politics of university–industry relations, remains central to their paper's troubled reception.
The agricultural biotechnology industry undermines its own credibility by not aggressively evaluating the health and environmental implications of its products. The public will remain sceptical until it does so.
We call on scientists, Nature and other scientific journals to re-examine their commitment to agricultural biotechnology as well as their own conflicts of interest, and to actively encourage a balanced, critical evaluation of the ecological and health effects of the flow of transgenes into the environment.
For further analysis, see http://www.cnr.berkeley.edu/~kenw/maize/compromised.htm.
Statement of competing financial interests: the authors are recipients of educational grants from and/or employees of the University of California, Berkeley, which could lose financially from publication of this Correspondence as a result of its strategic alliance with TMRI/Syngenta.