3.3 Drawing conclusions
Sections 2.1 and 2.2 have summarised some of the major aspects of the Pusztai affair, but it should be said that almost every detail has been the subject of prolonged and heated dispute. Our purpose is not to attempt to denigrate individuals or institutions. Rather, the hope is that the tale carries some general messages of value about how science is undertaken and communicated, which can sometimes become clearer when things go wrong.
Communicating preliminary scientific information via press releases, internal reports and TV programmes is fraught with problems. It's very difficult to establish the credibility of findings without access to formal published scientific papers and without the expertise necessary to understand them. However, scientists increasingly use less conventional methods of disseminating their findings, notably TV and the Internet. In areas of public concern such as GM research, they are often encouraged to do so by the media. The pressure to announce findings early, through the mass media, also reflects the highly competitive nature of many areas of scientific research. Formal publication and peer review tends to be a slow process, and the quality assurance procedures are not perfect. However, a good reason for favouring formal publication is that, in assessing the value of scientific findings, referees set great store upon the fine details of experimental design and interpretation. Errors in either aspect of a paper can force authors to reconsider and improve their experiments, or prevent publication. Once a paper has passed this quality control test, it becomes available to a wider scientific community and the public. One problem in areas of science of commercial interest, like GM, is that much of the work is not freely available for public or scientific scrutiny. A great deal of the work on GM has been performed by commercial companies, or university researchers hoping to exploit its commercial potential. Much of this work is not openly published, for fear of losing competitive advantage.
The Royal Society and Pusztai disputed the role of internal reports. The Royal Society took the view that since the reports were publicly available (via the Rowett website) and at the time the only documents giving experimental details, it was right that they be subject to expert scrutiny. Pusztai felt that this was unfair, as they were aimed at an internal Rowett audience, who shared a knowledge of the procedures used.
It is self-evident that different individuals and institutions took very different meanings away from the episode. It is tempting to look for clarity by emphasising that we should just 'stick to the facts', but what comprise the facts can be very complex and contentious. Facts can be selected and presented in ways that reflect pre-existing beliefs and particular personal contexts. Many such contexts may have little to do with science as such, but they help shape or 'frame' the debate to a significant degree. At the risk of over-generalising, those who had existing concerns about the safety of GM foods saw Pusztai as a brave, pioneering scientist and a victimised whistle-blower. From that point of view, the scientific and political establishment conspired to discredit and excommunicate Pusztai. By contrast, his critics within the scientific community had particular views about professional practice and about where the threshold should be set for the 'burden of proof'; they took the view that Pusztai had fallen short of these exacting standards.
The episode also raises questions about the responsibilities of scientists, their working relationships with their institutions and the scientific community. In particular, the differing responsibilities of the institution (Rowett) and the scientist (Pusztai) are unclear - how and through what channels should the concerns of an individual scientist be conveyed? There are many situations where the broad scientific consensus takes a different view from that of a lone dissenting voice. Such a majority opinion may well be based on sound thinking and proper caution, but sometimes dissenters have been proved correct, and in retrospect the majority can appear to have reacted in ways that reflected an innate conservatism or self-interest.
There can be little doubt that the manner of Pusztai's treatment fuelled the view that an 'aging and frail' scientist was being turned into a martyr. Attempts by Government ministers to undermine his results, combined with what many saw as a high-handed stance from the Royal Society, conveyed the impression of unfairness and intimidation. The sight of scientists quarrelling in public may have helped to erode public confidence in their opinions and generally heighten anxiety about the safety of GM foods. Many within the scientific community bemoaned this increase in public suspicion, but a case could be made that their own behaviour helped engender just such an atmosphere. Even if it were true that Pusztai's work had experimental flaws and was built on questionable assumptions, a more subtle and constructive line of dealing with such a voice was needed.
Peer review is often put forward as the 'gold standard' that testifies to the validity of published scientific information. Does the Pusztai episode reveal any shortcomings in the procedure?
Episodes such as this, though exceptional, do reveal the system's weaknesses. Reviewers may disagree, or have dubious motives. Editors may take the view (as here) that publication is less about 'quality control' and more an obligation to bring contentious issues out 'into the open'. Scientists may be frustrated by the slow pace of the peer review process, and feel their work needs to be in the public domain more quickly. However, as we've seen, the use of non-standard means of dissemination, prior to publication, can place particular strains on peer review.