The American Council on Science and Health is a Corporate Front Group

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Updated in July 2019

The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) calls itself a “pro-science consumer advocacy organization” and media outlets often quote the group as an independent science source; however, documents described in this fact sheet establish that ACSH is corporate front group that solicits money from tobacco, chemical, cosmetic, pharmaceutical and other companies in exchange for defending and promoting their products. The group does not disclose its funding.

Key documents:

  • Emails from 2015 released via discovery reveal that Monsanto funded ACSH and asked the group to help defend glyphosate.
  • Leaked financial documents from 2012 establish that ACSH solicits money from corporations for product defense campaigns. Donors include a wide array of companies and industry groups.
  • Emails from 2009 show that ACSH solicited $100,000 from Syngenta to write a paper and book about Syngenta’s pesticide atrazine. In 2011, ACSH released a book by Jon Entine similar to the project described in the email.
  • Syngenta and Monsanto have been regular contributors to ACSH over the years, the emails show.

Monsanto funds ACSH to defend Monsanto products

Emails released in April 2019 reveal that Monsanto agreed to fund ACSH in 2015 and asked the group to help defend glyphosate from cancer concerns raised by the International Agency for Research. ACSH agreed to do so, and later attacked the cancer report as a “scientific fraud.” The emails illuminate ACSH’s reliance on corporate funding and efforts to please its funders. ACSH’s former acting director Gil Ross (who spent time in jail for Medicaid fraud) wrote to a Monsanto executive, “Each and every day, we work hard to prove our worth to companies such as Monsanto.” Ross wrote:

Emails also show that Monsanto executives paid ACSH despite their discomfort with the group. Monsanto’s senior science lead Daniel Goldstein championed ACSH to his colleagues, and sent them links to 53 ACSH articles, two books and a pesticide review he described as as “EXTREMELY USEFUL.” Goldstein wrote:

Key player in Monsanto’s propaganda network

An award-winning investigation by Le Monde into Monsanto’s “war on science” to defend glyphosate named the American Council on Science and Health among the “well known propaganda websites” that played a key role in attacking the scientists who raised cancer concerns. In May 2017, plaintiffs’ attorneys suing Monsanto over glyphosate cancer concerns stated in a brief: “Monsanto quietly funnels money to ‘think tanks’ such as the ‘Genetic Literacy Project’ and the ‘American Council on Science and Health,’ organizations intended to shame scientists and highlight information helpful to Monsanto and other chemical producers.”

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know reveal that Monsanto initially chose ACSH to publish a series of pro-GMO papers that were assigned to professors by Monsanto and “merchandized” by a PR firm to heavily promote them as independent. Monsanto executive Eric Sachs wrote to the professors: “To ensure that the papers have the greatest impact, the American Council for Science and Health is partnering with CMA Consulting to drive the project. The completed policy briefs will be offered on the ACSH website … CMA and ACSH also will merchandize the policy briefs, including the development of media specific materials, such as op-eds, blog postings, speaking engagements, events, webinars, etc.” The papers were eventually published by Genetic Literacy Project with no disclosure of Monsanto’s role.

In a report from the U.S. House of Representatives, congressional investigators stated that Monsanto uses “industry trade groups, such as CropLife and industry front groups, such as Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review as platforms of support for industry spokespersons.”

Leaked ACSH docs reveal corporate-defense funding strategy

A leaked 2012 ACSH financial summary reported by Mother Jones revealed that ACSH has received funding from a large number of corporations and industry groups with a financial stake in the science messaging ACSH promotes — and showed how ACSH solicits corporate donations for quid pro quo product-defense campaigns. For example, the document outlines:

  • Plans to pitch the Vinyl Institute which “previously supported chlorine and health report”
  • Plans to pitch food companies for a messaging campaign to oppose GMO labeling
  • Plans to pitch cosmetic companies to counter “reformulation pressures” from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
  • Efforts to court tobacco and e-cigarette companies

Mother Jones reported, “ACSH’s donors and the potential backers the group has been targeting comprise a who’s-who of energy, agriculture, cosmetics, food, soda, chemical, pharmaceutical, and tobacco corporations.” Funding details:

  • ACSH donors in the second half of 2012 included Chevron, Coca-Cola, the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation, Dr. Pepper/Snapple, Bayer Cropscience, Procter and Gamble, Syngenta, 3M, McDonald’s, and tobacco conglomerate Altria. ACSH also pursued financial support from Pepsi, Monsanto, British American Tobacco, DowAgro, ExxonMobil Foundation, Philip Morris International, Reynolds American, the Koch family-controlled Claude R. Lambe Foundation, the Dow-linked Gerstacker Foundation, the Bradley Foundation and Searle Freedom Trust.
  • Reynolds American and Phillip Morris International were the two largest donors listed in the documents.

Syngenta funding, Syngenta defense

In 2011, ACSH published a book about “chemophobia” written by Jon Entine, who is now the executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, another front group that works with Monsanto. Entine’s ACSH book defended atrazine, a pesticide manufactured by Syngenta, which was funding ACSH.

A 2012 Mother Jones article describes the circumstances leading up to the book. The article by Tom Philpott, based in part on internal company documents obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy, describes Syngenta’s PR efforts to get third-party allies to spin media coverage of atrazine.

In one email from 2009, ACSH staff asked Syngenta for an additional $100,000 – “separate and distinct from general operating support Syngenta has been so generously providing over the years” – to produce an atrazine-friendly paper and “consumer-friendly booklet” to help educate media and scientists.

Email from ASCH staffer Gil Ross to Syngenta about proposed atrazine project:

A year and a half later, ACSH published Entine’s book with a press release that sounds similar to the project Ross described in his solicitation email to Syngenta: “The American Council on Science and Health is pleased to announce a new book and companion friendly, abbreviated position paper” in response to the “irrational fear of chemicals.” Author Jon Entine denied any relationship with Syngenta and told Philpott he had “no idea” Syngenta was funding ACSH.

ACSH personnel

  • ACSH’s longtime “Medical/Executive DirectorDr. Gilbert Ross was convicted in a scheme to defraud the Medicaid system prior to joining ACSH. See court documents about Dr. Ross’ multiple fraud convictions and sentencing, and article in Mother Jones “Paging Dr. Ross” (2005). Dr. Ross was found to be a “highly untrustworthy individual” by a judge who sustained the exclusion of Dr. Ross from Medicaid for 10 years (see additional references and court document).
  • In June 2015, Hank Campbell took over ACSH leadership from acting president (and convicted felon) Dr. Gilbert Ross. Campbell worked for software development companies before starting the website Science 2.0 in 2006. In his 2012 book with Alex Berezow, “Science Left Behind: Feel Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti Science Left,” Campbell describes his background: “six years ago… I decided I wanted to write science on the Internet … with nothing but enthusiasm and a concept, I approached world famous people about helping me reshape how science could be done, and they did it for free.” Campbell left suddenly under unknown circumstances in December 2018. Read more about Campbell here.
  • Campbell’s book co-author, Alex Berezow, is now vice president of scientific affairs at ACSH.  He is a founding editor of Real Clear Science and is on the USA Today editorial board of contributors but USA Today does not disclose Berezow’s ACSH affiliation or ACSH’s corporate funding despite repeated complaints (more info below).

Leaders and advisors: tobacco ties and climate science denial  

The ACSH board of trustees includes Fred L. Smith Jr., founder of the Competitive Enterprises Institute, a leading promoter of climate science denial and a group that has received millions of dollars from Exxon Mobile and dark money funding vehicle Donors Trust.  Smith and CEI also have a history of fighting against tobacco regulations and soliciting money from the tobacco industry, according to documents from the UCSF Truth Tobacco Industry Documents archive. 

James Enstrom and Geoffrey Kabat, two epidemiologists who took money from tobacco companies and wrote studies defending tobacco products, also have ACSH ties. Dr. Enstrom is a member of the ACSH board of trustees and Dr. Kabat serves on the “health board of scientific advisors“. Both scientists have “long standing financial and other working relationships with the tobacco industry,” according to a paper in BMJ Tobacco Control.

In a widely cited 2003 paper in BMJ, Kabat and Enstrom concluded that secondhand smoke does not increase the risk of lung cancer and heart disease. The study was sponsored in part by the Center for Indoor Air Research (CIAR), a tobacco industry group. Although that funding was disclosed, a follow-up analysis in BMJ Tobacco Control found that the disclosures by Enstrom and Kabat “did not provide the reader with a full picture of the tobacco industry’s involvement with the study authors.” The paper details numerous financial ties between Enstrom and the tobacco industry.

Emails from 2014 feature Dr. Enstrom discussing with famous climate science denier Fred Singer ideas to attack and discredit two scientists who were involved in the film “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming,” and whether to try to stop the release of the film with a lawsuit. For more information, see DeSmog blog, “Tobacco Gun for Hire James Enstrom, Willie Soon and the Climate Deniers Attack on Merchants of Doubt” (March 2015).

Dr. Kabat is also on the board of directors of the parent organization of the Genetic Literacy Project, a front group that works with Monsanto on PR projects while claiming to be independent. Read more about his work in our fact sheet, Geoffrey Kabat’s Ties to Tobacco and Chemical Industry Groups

Incorrect statements about science 

American Council on Science and Health has claimed:

  • “There is no evidence that exposure to secondhand smoke involves heart attacks or cardiac arrest.” Winston-Salem Journal, 2012
  • “there is no scientific consensus concerning global warming.” ACSH, 1998 (Greenpeace has described ACSH a “Koch Industries climate denial front group”)
  • fracking “doesn’t pollute water or air.” Daily Caller, 2013
  • “There has never been a case of ill health linked to the regulated, approved use of pesticides in this country.” Tobacco Documents Library, UCSF, The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition document page 9, 1995
  • “There is no evidence that BPA [bisphenol A] in consumer products of any type, including cash register receipts, are harmful to health.” ACSH, 2012
  • exposure to mercury, a potent neurotoxin, “in conventional seafood causes no harm in humans.” ACSH, 2010.

Recent ACSH messaging continues in the same theme, denying risk from products that are important to the chemical, tobacco and other industries, and making frequent attacks on scientists, journalists and others who raise concerns.

  • A 2016 “top junk science” post by ACSH denies that chemicals can cause endocrine disruption; defends e-cigarettes, vaping and soda; and attacks journalists and the Journal of the American Medical Association.

USA Today gives ACSH a platform 

USA Today continues to publish columns by ACSH staffers Hank Campbell and Alex Berezow without disclosing their funding ties to corporations whose interests they defend. In February 2017, 30 health, environmental, labor and public interest groups wrote to the editors of USA Today asking the paper to stop providing a platform of legitimacy to ACSH or at least provide full disclosures about who funds the group.

The letter states:

  • “We are writing to express our concern that USA Today continues to publish columns written by members of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a corporate-funded group with a long history of promoting corporate agendas that are at odds with mainstream science. USA Today should not be helping this group promote its false identity as a credible, independent source on science. Your readers deserve accurate information about what and whom this group represents, as they reflect on the content of the columns.”
  • “These are no idle allegations. Many of the undersigned health, environmental, labor and public interest groups have been tracking ACSH’s work over the years. We have documented instances in which the group has worked to undermine climate change science, and deny the health threats associated with various products, including second-hand smokefrackingpesticides and industrial chemicals – all without being transparent about its corporate backers.”
  • We note that financial documents obtained by Mother Jones show that ACSH has received funding from tobacco, chemical, pharmaceutical and oil corporations. Public interest groups have reported that ACSH received funding from the Koch Foundations between 2005-2011, and released internal documents showing that ACSH solicited $100,000 from Syngenta in 2009 to write favorably about its product atrazine – a donation that was to be “separate and distinct from general operating support Syngenta has been so generously providing over the years.”
  • “At a time when the public is questioning the legitimacy of the news media, we believe it is vital for publications such as USA Today to follow the highest standards of journalistic ethics and serve the public with as much truth and transparency as possible. We respectfully ask you to refrain from publishing further columns authored by members of the American Council on Science and Health, or at the very least require that the individuals identify the organization accurately as a corporate-funded advocacy group.”

As of December 2017, USA Today editorial page editor Bill Sternberg has declined to stop publishing ACSH columns and the paper has repeatedly provided inaccurate or incomplete disclosures for the columns, and failed to notify its readers about ACSH’s funding from corporations whose agenda they promote.

Monsanto’s Fingerprints All Over Newsweek’s Hit on Organic Food

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Update: Newsweek’s bizarre response

By Stacy Malkan

“The campaign for organic food is a deceitful, expensive scam,” according to a Jan. 19 Newsweek article authored by Dr. Henry I. Miller of the Hoover Institution.

If that name sounds familiar – Henry I. Miller – it may be because the New York Times recently revealed a scandal involving Miller: that he had been caught publishing an article ghostwritten by Monsanto under his own name in Forbes. The article, which largely mirrored a draft provided to him by Monsanto, attacked the scientists of the World Health Organization’s cancer panel (IARC) for their decision to list Monsanto’s top-selling chemical, glyphosate, as a probable human carcinogen.

Reporting on an email exchange released in litigation with Monsanto over cancer concerns, the Times’ Danny Hakim wrote:

“Monsanto asked Mr. Miller if he would be interested in writing an article on the topic, and he said, ‘I would be if I could start from a high-quality draft.’

The article appeared under Mr. Miller’s name, and with the assertion that ‘opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.’ The magazine did not mention any involvement by Monsanto in preparing the article …

Forbes removed the story from its website on Wednesday and said that it ended its relationship with Mr. Miller amid the revelations.”

The opinion wire Project Syndicate followed suit, after first adding a disclaimer to Miller’s commentaries noting that they would have been rejected if his collaboration with Monsanto had been known.

Desperate to Disparage Organic

The ghostwriting scandal has hardly slowed Miller down; he has continued to spin promotional content for the agrichemical industry from outlets such as Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal, without disclosing to readers his relationship with Monsanto.

Yet Miller’s Newsweek hit on organic food has Monsanto’s fingerprints in plain sight all over it.

For starters, Miller uses pesticide industry sources to make unsubstantiated (and ludicrous) claims about organic agriculture – for example, that organic farming is “actually more harmful to the environment” than conventional agriculture, or that organic allies spent $2.5 billion in a year campaigning against genetically engineered foods in North America.

The source on the latter inaccurate claim is Jay Byrne, a former director of corporate communications for Monsanto (not identified as such in the Newsweek article), who now directs a PR firm called v-Fluence Interactive.

Email exchanges reveal how Monsanto works with people like Jay Byrne – and with Byrne specifically – to push exactly this type of attack against Monsanto’s foes while keeping corporate involvement a secret.

According to emails obtained by my group US Right to Know, Byrne played a key role in helping Monsanto set up a corporate front group called Academics Review that published a report attacking the organic industry as a marketing scam – the exact theme in Miller’s Newsweek article.

Jay Byrne’s hit list of Monsanto foes. 

The concept of the front group – explained in the emails I reported here – was to create a credible-sounding platform from which academics could attack critics of the agrichemical industry while claiming to be independent, yet secretly receiving funds from industry groups. Wink, wink, ha, ha.

“The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information,” wrote a Monsanto executive involved in the plan.

Byrne’s role, according to the emails, was to serve as a “commercial vehicle” to help obtain corporate funding. Byrne also said he was compiling an “opportunities” list of targets – critics of the agrichemical industry who could be “inoculated” from the academics’ platform.

Several people on Byrne’s “opportunities” hit list, or later attacked by Academics Review, were targets in Miller’s Newsweek article, too.

Miller’s Newsweek piece also tried to discredit the work of New York Times’ reporter Danny Hakim, without disclosing that it was Hakim who exposed Miller’s Monsanto ghostwriting scandal.

As with other recent attacks on the organic industry, all fingers point back to the agrichemical corporations that will lose the most if consumer demand continues to rise for foods free of GMOs and pesticides.

Monsanto’s “Independent Academic” Ruse

Henry Miller has a long history of partnering with – and pitching his PR services to – corporations that need help convincing the public their products aren’t dangerous and don’t need to be regulated.

And Monsanto relies heavily on people with scientific credentials or neutral-sounding groups to make those arguments – people who are willing to communicate the company script while claiming to be independent actors. This fact has been established by reporting in the New York Times, Le Monde, WBEZ, the Progressive and many other outlets in recent years.

A newly released Monsanto document provides more details about how Monsanto’s propaganda and lobbying operation works, and the key role Henry Miller plays within it.

This 2015 “preparedness plan” – released by lawyers in the glyphosate cancer lawsuits – lays out Monsanto’s PR strategy to “orchestrate outcry” against the IARC cancer scientists for their report on glyphosate. The first external deliverable: “Engage Henry Miller.”

The plan goes on to name four tiers of “industry partners” – a dozen trade groups, academic groups and independent-seeming front groups such as the Genetic Literacy Project – that could help “inoculate” against the cancer report and “protect the reputation … of Roundup.”

Miller delivered for Monsanto with a March 2015 article in Forbes – the article later revealed as Monsanto’s writing – attacking the IARC scientists. The industry partners have been pushing the same arguments through various channels again and again, ever since, to try to discredit the cancer scientists.

Much of this criticism has appeared to the public as a spontaneous uprising of concern, with no mention of Monsanto’s role as the composer and conductor of the narrative: a classic corporate PR hoodwink.

As more documents tumble into the public realm – via the Monsanto Papers and public records investigations – the “independent academic” ruse will become harder to maintain for industry surrogates like Henry I. Miller, and for media and policy makers to ignore.

For now, Newsweek is not backing down. Even after reviewing the documents that substantiate the facts in this article, Newsweek Opinion Editor Nicholas Wapshott wrote in an email, “I understand that you and Miller have a long history of dispute on this topic. He flatly denies your assertions.”

Neither Miller nor Wapshott have responded to further questions.

Stacy Malkan is co-director of the consumer watchdog and transparency group, US Right to Know. She is author of the book, “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry” (New Society, 2007). Disclosure: US Right to Know is funded in part by the Organic Consumers Association which is mentioned in Miller’s article and appears on Byrne’s hit list.

Science Media Centre Promotes Corporate Views of Science

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The Science Media Centre (SMC) is a nonprofit PR agency started in the UK that gets its largest block of funding from industry groups. Current and past funders include Bayer, DuPont, Monsanto, Coca-Cola and food and chemical industry trade groups, as well as media groups, government agencies, foundations and universities. The SMC model is spreading around the world and has been influential in shaping media coverage of science, sometimes in ways that downplay the risks of controversial products or technologies. This fact sheet describes SMC history, philosophy, funding model, tactics and reports from critics who have said SMC offers pro-industry science views, a characterization SMC denies.

Related:

Key facts

The SMC was set up in the UK in 2002 “after media frenzies over MMR, GM crops and animal research” to help the news media better represent mainstream science, according to the SMC fact sheet. According to the group’s 2002 founding report, the SMC was created to address:

  • a growing “crisis of confidence ” in society’s views of science
  • a collapse of respect for authority and expertise
  • a risk-averse society and alarmist media coverage and
  • the “apparently superior media strategies” used by environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.

Independent SMCs that share the same charter as the original now operate in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Japan, and SMCs are being planned in Brussels and the United States.

The SMC model has been influential in shaping media coverage about science. A media analysis of UK newspapers in 2011 and 2012 found that a majority of reporters who used SMC services did not seek additional perspectives for their stories. The group also wields political influence. In 2007, SMC stopped a proposed ban on human/animal hybrid embryos with its media campaign to shift coverage from ethical concerns to the benefits of embryos as a research tool, according to an article in Nature.

Several academics and researchers have criticized SMC for pushing corporate views of science, and for playing down the environmental and human health risks of controversial products and technologies. Reports have documented SMC’s tendency to push pro-industry messaging and exclude opposing perspectives on topics such as fracking, cell phone safety, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and GMOs.

In an email, SMC Director Fiona Fox said her group is not biased in favor of industry: “We listen carefully to any criticism of the SMC from the scientific community or news journalists working for UK media but we do not receive criticism of pro industry bias from these stakeholders. We reject the charge of pro industry bias and our work reflects the evidence and views of the 3000 eminent scientific researchers on our database. As an independent press office focusing on some of the most controversial science stories we fully expect criticism from groups outside mainstream science.”

Quotes about the Science Media Centre

Journalists and researchers on the influence and bias of the Science Media Centre (emphases added in quotes below):

  • “Science Media Centers … have become influential, but controversial players in the world of journalism. While some reporters find them helpful, others believe they are biased toward government and industry scientists.” Columbia Journalism Review
  • “Depending on whom you ask, (SMC Director) Fiona Fox is either saving science journalism or destroying it,Ewen Callway, Nature
  • “A decreasing pool of time-pressed UK science journalists no longer go into the field and dig for stories. They go to pre-arranged briefings at the SMC … The quality of science reporting and the integrity of information available to the public have both suffered, distorting the ability of the public to make decisions about risk.” Connie St. Louis, City College of London, in CJR
  • “The problem is not that they promote science, as they say they do, but that they promote pro-corporate science.” David Miller, University of Bath, in SciDev
  • “For those not blinded by the SMC’s dazzling aura, it appears that its covert purpose is to ensure that journalists and the media report scientific and medical matters only in a way that conforms to government and industry’s ‘policy’ on the issues in question.” Malcolm Hooper, University of Sunderland, paper on CFS/ME
  • “It is apparent that the agenda of SIRC, SMC and allied organisations is to support the UK government’s economic policy to promote Biotec and telecommunications technology.” Don Maisch paper on cell phones
  • “The role of the SMC appears to be putting a relatively narrow view of, in most cases positive, opinions of the safety of fracking.” Paul Mobbs, Mobbs Environmental Investigations
  • “The scientific establishment, always politically naive, appears unwittingly to have permitted its interests to be represented to the public by the members of a bizarre and cultish political network.” George Monbiot, The Guardian

Science Media Centre’s Corporate Funding

SMC’s largest share of funding, roughly 30%, comes from corporations and trade groups. Funders as of August 2016 included a wide range of chemical, biotechnology, nuclear, food, medical, telecommunications and cosmetic industry interests. Agrichemical industry funders included Bayer, DuPont, BASF, CropLife International, BioIndustry Association and the Chemical Industries Association. Previous funders have included Monsanto, ExxonMobile, Shell, Coca-Cola and Kraft. SMC also receives funding from several media, government and academic groups.

SMC says it caps donations from any one company or institution to 5% of annual income in an effort to “protect from undue influence” – exceptions are made for larger donations from the Wellcome Trust and the UK government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

SMC History: “Britain’s first Ministry of Truth”

By the late 1990s, the relationship between science and media was at a breaking point, explains the SMC promotional video. “Around the time of BSE, MMR, GM crops, there was a real sense of this gulf between scientists and the media,” Fox said in the video. SMC was created “to help renew public trust in science by working to promote more balanced, accurate and rational coverage of the controversial science stories,” according to its consultation report.

SMC foundational documents include:

  • February 2000 House of Lords committee report describes a “crisis of trust” in society’s relationship with science, and recommended a new initiative on science and the media.
  • September 2000 “Code of Practice / Guidelines on Science and Health Communication,” by the Royal Society and Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC) recommends guidelines for journalists and scientists to counter “the negative impact of what are viewed as unjustified ‘scare stories’ and those which offer false hopes to the seriously ill.”
  • 2002 SMC Consultation Report describes the interview process with stakeholders from government, industry and media who informed how SMC would “take up the gauntlet thrown down by the Lords … of adapting science to frontline news.”

The SMC effort was immediately controversial. Author Tom Wakeford predicted in 2001 that SMC would become “Britain’s first Ministry of Truth of which George Orwell’s fictional rulers would be proud.” He wrote in the Guardian, “Senior figures in the Government, Royal Society and Royal Institution have decided that their much-prized Knowledge Economy necessitates the curtailment of free speech.” He described the Code of Practice: “The Code recommends that journalists consult with approved experts, a secret directory of which is to be provided to ‘registered journalists with bona fide credentials.'”

SMC’s first project – an effort to discredit a BBC fictional film that portrayed genetically engineered crops in an unfavorable light – elicited a series of critical articles in the Guardian (a Guardian editor co-authored the film). The articles described SMC as a “science lobby group backed by major pharmaceutical and chemical companies” that was operating “a sort of Mandelsonian rapid rebuttal unit” and employing “some of the clumsiest spin techniques of New Labour in trying to discredit (the film) in advance.”

Dick Taverne and Sense About Science

Sense About Science –  a lobby effort to reshape perceptions of science – launched in the UK in 2002 alongside SMC under the leadership of Lord Dick Taverne and others with ties to SMC. Lord Taverne was an SMC Advisory Board member and he co-created the SIRC Code of Practice.

A 2016 story in The Intercept by Liza Gross described Sense About Science and its leaders as “self-appointed guardians of ‘sound science’” who “tip the scales toward industry.” Gross described Taverne’s tobacco industry ties and corporate PR efforts:

According to internal documents released in litigation by cigarette manufacturers, Taverne’s consulting company, PRIMA Europe, helped British American Tobacco improve relations with its investors and beat European regulations on cigarettes in the 1990s. Taverne himself worked on the investors project: In an undated memo, PRIMA assured the tobacco company that “the work would be done personally by Dick Taverne,” because he was well placed to interview industry opinion leaders and “would seek to ensure that industry’s needs are foremost in people’s minds.” During the same decade, Taverne sat on the board of the British branch of the powerhouse public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, which claimed Philip Morris as a client. The idea for a “sound science” group, made up of a network of scientists who would speak out against regulations that industrial spokespeople lacked the credibility to challenge, was a pitch Burson-Marsteller made to Philip Morris in a 1994 memorandum.

As its first projects, Sense About Science organized a letter from 114 scientists lobbying the British government to “contradict false claims” about GMOs, and conducted a survey highlighting the problem of vandalism against GMO crops.

Sense About Science USA opened in 2014 under the leadership of longtime chemical industry ally Trevor Butterworth, and partners with the Gates-funded Cornell Alliance for Science, a GMO promotion group.

Revolutionary Communist Roots

The founding and current directors of Science Media Centre and Sense About Science – SMC Director Fiona Fox and SAS Director Tracey Brown – and others involved with those groups, were reportedly connected through the Revolutionary Communist Party, a Trotskyist splinter party organized in the late 1970s under the leadership of sociologist Frank Ferudi, according to writers George Monbiot, Jonathan Matthews, Zac Goldsmith and Don Maisch.

Ferudi’s splinter group RCP morphed into Living Marxism, LM magazine, Spiked Magazine and the Institute of Ideas, which embraced capitalism, individualism and promoted an idealized vision of technology and disdain for environmentalists, according to Monbiot. (Ferudi responds in this piece.) A Guardian article about an LM event in 1999 described the network as “a reaction against the Left” (in Furedi’s words) with a worldview that left-wing thinking “is not a political factor” and there is “no alternative to the market.”

“One of strangest aspects of modern politics is the dominance of former left-wingers who have swung to the right,” Monbiot wrote in a 2003 article describing the ties between Sense About Science and the Science Media Centre, the people involved with those efforts and links to the LM network:

“Is all this a coincidence? I don’t think so. But it’s not easy to understand why it is happening. Are we looking at a group which wants power for its own sake, or one following a political design, of which this is an intermediate step? What I can say is that the scientific establishment, always politically naive, appears unwittingly to have permitted its interests to be represented to the public by the members of a bizarre and cultish political network. Far from rebuilding public trust in science and medicine, this group’s repugnant philosophy could finally destroy it.”

Tactics

The SMC in the UK says it has a database with 2700 experts and more than 1200 press officers, and mailing lists with more than 300 journalists representing every major UK news outlet. SMC uses three main tactics to influence science coverage, according to its promotional video:

  1. Rapid response to breaking news with opinion quotes: When a science story breaks, “within minutes there are SMC emails in inboxes of every single national reporter offering experts,” said Fox.
  2. Getting to reporters first with new research. SMC “has privileged access to about 10-15 scientific journals in advance of the embargo lifting” so they can prepare advance comments from third-party experts signaling whether new studies merit attention and how they should be framed.
  3. Organizing about 100 press briefings a year that “proactively set the agenda” on a wide range of controversial science topics such as nuclear waste, biotechnology and emerging diseases.

Examples of influence and bias

Several researchers and academics have reported what they say is SMC’s pro-industry bias on controversial topics, and the extent to which journalists rely on SMC expert views to frame science stories.

Lacking diverse perspectives

Journalism professor Connie St. Louis of City University, London, evaluated SMC’s impact on science reporting in 12 national newspapers in 2011 and 2012, and found:

  • 60% of articles covering SMC press briefings did not use an independent source
  • 54% of “expert reactions” reactions offered by SMC to breaking news during the time period covered were in the news
    • Of these stories, 23% did not use an independent source
    • Of those that did, only 32% of the external sources offered an opposing view to that offered by the expert in the SMC reaction.

“There are more journalists than there should be that are only using experts from the SMC and not consulting independent sources,” St. Louis concluded.

Experts aren’t always scientists

David Miller, professor of sociology from the University of Bath, UK, analyzed SMC content on the website and via Freedom of Information Act requests, and reported:

  • Some 20 of the 100 most quoted SMC experts were not scientists, as defined by having a PhD and working at a research institution or a top learned society, but were lobbyists for and CEOs of industry groups.
  • Funding sources were not always completely or timely disclosed online.
  • There was no evidence of SMC favoring a particular funder, but it did favor particular corporate sectors and topics it covered “reflect the priorities of their funders.”

“If you say you quote scientists and end up using lobbyists and NGOs, the question is: how do you choose which lobbyists or NGOs to have? Why don’t you have lobbyists who oppose genetic testing or members of Greenpeace expressing their view rather than bioindustry’s position? That really reveals the kind of biases that are in operation,” Miller said.

Strategic spin triumph on human/animal hybrid embryos

In 2006, when the UK government considered banning scientists from creating human-animal hybrid embryos, the SMC coordinated efforts to shift the focus of media coverage away from ethical concerns and toward the importance of hybrid embryos as a research tool, according to an article in Nature.

The SMC campaign “was a strategic triumph in media relations” and was “largely responsible for turning the tide of coverage on human–animal hybrid embryos,” according to Andy Williams, a media researcher at the University of Cardiff, UK, who conducted an analysis on behalf of SMC and campaign allies.

Williams found:

  • More than 60% of the sources in stories written by science and health reporters — the ones targeted by the SMC — supported the research, and only one-quarter of sources opposed to it.
  • By contrast, journalists who had not been targeted by the SMC spoke to fewer supportive scientists and more opponents.

“Williams now worries that the SMC efforts led reporters to give too much deference to scientists, and that it stifled debate,” the Nature article reported. An interview with Williams in SciDevNet reports:

“A lot of the language used to describe [SMC media briefings] stresses that they were a chance for the scientists to explain the science in their own words, but — crucially — in a neutral and value-free way,” he said.  But this ignores the fact that these were tightly managed events pushing persuasive narratives, he added, and that they were set up to secure maximum media impact for the scientists involved. Specialist science journalists were fed “information subsidies” by the SMC and were far more likely than other journalists to quote pro-hybridisation sources, Williams said.

Promotes industry views on fracking

According to a February 2015 media analysis conducted by Paul Mobbs of Mobbs’ Environmental Investigations, SMC offered numerous expert commentaries on fracking between 2012-2015, but the handful of scientists who dominated the commentary were from institutes with funding relationships with the fossil fuel industry or industry-sponsored research projects.

“The role of the SMC appears to be putting a relatively narrow view of, in most cases positive, opinions of the safety of fracking. These opinions are based upon the professional position of those involved, and are not supported with references to evidence to confirm their validity. In turn, these views have often been quoted in the media without question.”

“In the case of shale gas, the SMC is not providing a balanced view of the available evidence, and uncertainties, on the impacts of unconventional oil and gas. It is providing quotes from academics who mostly represent a ‘UK establishment’ viewpoint, which ignores the whole body of evidence available on this issue from the USA, Australia and Canada.”

Discrediting Chronic Fatigue Syndrome 

A 2013 paper by Malcolm Hooper, Emeritus Professor of Medicinal Chemistry, University of Sunderland, UK, accused SMC of promoting the views of certain medical professionals, failing to report on biomedical science and pushing “the ideology and propaganda of the powerful vested interest groups” in its media work on chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME).

Hooper’s paper reports on links between the SMC and key players in the CFS/ME controversy with ties to the insurance industry, and provides evidence of what Hooper described as the SMC’s campaign to discredit people with CFS/ME, and its efforts to misrepresent the PACE trial results to the media. He concludes, “An organisation which behaves in such a blatantly unscientific way can have no legitimate claim to represent science.”

For SMC views, see 2018 fact sheet on CFS/ME “the illness and the controversy.”

Cell phone safety and telecom funders

A 2006 paper by Don Maisch, PhD, “raises serious concerns over the impartiality of the SMC model in science communication when tendering expert advice on contentious issues when vested interests are part of the SMC structure.” The Maisch paper explores SMC communications on issues involving electromagnetic radiation and cell phone safety, and offers what he calls an “uncensored history of the SMC model of science communication.”

“It is apparent that the agenda of SIRC, SMC and allied organisations is to support the UK government’s economic policy to promote Biotec and telecommunications technology. This may explain why people with no real qualifications in science communication were able to reach positions that essentially became the public face of the British scientific establishment. It also explains why the UK scientific and medical establishment, aware that a large part of scientific funding comes from industry sources, are willing partners in allowing PR organizations with a pre-determined agenda to speak for them and champion government economic policy over the public interest.”

Defending GMO

As descried above, both Science Media Centre and its sister group Sense About Science launched with projects defending genetically engineered foods. SMC frequently offers experts who are critical of studies that raise concerns about GMOs. Examples include:

In 2016, scientists pushed back against SMC expert reactions they said misrepresented their work on GMOs. The study led by Michael Antoniou, PhD, Head of the Gene Expression and Therapy Group, King’s College London School of Medicine, and published in Scientific Reports, used molecular profiling to compare GMO corn to its non-GM counterpart and reported the GM and non-GM corn were “not substantially equivalent.” SMC issued an expert reactions disparaging the study, and would not allow the authors to respond or correct inaccurate information in the SMC release, according to the study authors.

“These comments [quoted in the SMC release] are inaccurate and thus spread misinformation about our paper. We have been informed that it is not the Science Media Centre’s policy to post responses, such as ours, to commentaries that they commission/post on their website,” Antoniou said. The study authors posted their response here.

Journalist Rebekah Wilce reported in PR Watch in 2014 on several examples of pro-GMO bias in SMC communications. She wrote:

SMC calls itself an independent media briefing center for scientific issues. Critics, however, question its independence from the GMO industry — despite the group’s statement that each individual corporation or other funder may only donate up to five percent of the group’s annual income — and warn that the organization is headed across the pond to the United States to provide more GMO spin here.

The SMC spearheaded the response to a 2012 study that reporting finding tumors in lab animals fed GMOs in a long-term feeding study. The study was widely disparaged in the press, was retracted by the original journal and later republished in another journal.

Media Coverage

Columbia Journalism Review three-part series, June 2013, “Science Media Centres and the Press”

  • CJR part 1: “Does the UK Model Help Journalists?”
  • CJR part 2: “How did the SMCs perform during the Fukushima nuclear crisis?”
  • CJR part 3: “Can a SMC work in the US?”

Nature, by Ewen Callaway, July 2013, “Science media: Centre of attention; Fiona Fox and her Science Media Centre are determined to improve Britain’s press. Now the model is spreading around the world”

Nature, by Colin Macilwain, “Two nations divided by a common purpose: Plans to replicate Britain’s Science Media Centre in the United States are fraught with danger”

FAIR, by Stacy Malkan, July 24, 2017, “Reuters vs. Un Cancer Agency: Are Corporate Ties Influencing Science Coverage?”

SciDevNet, by Mićo Tatalović, May 2014, “UK’s Science Media Centre lambasted for pushing corporate science” Centre lamb

PR Watch, by Rebekah Wilke, April 2014, “Science Media Centre Spins Pro-GMO Line”

On related group Sense About Science:

The Intercept, by Liza Gross, November 2016, “Seeding Doubt: How self-appointed guardians of ‘sound science’ tip the scales toward industry.”

USRTK Fact Sheet: Sense About Science-USA Director Trevor Butterworth Spins Science for Industry

USRTK Fact Sheet: Monsanto Relied on These ‘Partners’ to Attack Top Cancer Scientists