Independent Women’s Forum: Koch-Funded Group Defends Pesticide, Oil, Tobacco Industries

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Funded largely by right-wing foundations that push climate science denial, the Independent Women’s Forum also partners with Monsanto, defends toxic chemicals in food and consumer products and argues against laws that would curb the power of corporations. IWF got its start in 1991 as an effort to defend now Supreme Court Justice (and former Monsanto attorney) Clarence Thomas as he faced sexual harassment charges. The group also defended Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in the face of sexual assault allegations, and described Kavanaugh as a “champion of women.

See: “Meet the ‘Feminists’ Doing the Koch Brothers’ Dirty Work,” by Joan Walsh, The Nation 

The Independent Women ‘s Forum now says it works for policies that “enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities.” In practice, the group advocates for deregulating toxic products and works to deflect the blame for health and environmental harms away from polluting corporations and toward personal responsibility. The 2017 annual IWF gala in Washington DC drew Republican leaders, awarded IWF board member Kellyanne Conway, and was sponsored by chemical and tobacco companies, among others. 

See: “The Politics of Cancer and Infertility,” by Stacy Malkan, Huffington Post 

Funding by right wing billionaires and corporations

Most of the known donors of the Independent Women’s Forum are men, as Lisa Graves wrote for the Center for Media and Democracy in 2016. IWF has received over $15 million in donations since 1998, largely from right-wing foundations that promote deregulation and corporate free reign, according to data collected by Greenpeace USA. IWF’s leading contributors, with more than $5 million in donations, are Donors Trust and Donors Capital Funds, the secretive funds, known as the “dark money ATM of the conservative movement,“connected withCharles and David Koch.These funds channel money from anonymous donors, including corporations, to third-party groups that lobby for corporate interests.

IWF’s top funder: dark money from undisclosed donors

Koch family foundations directly contributed more than $844,115 and other top funders include the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, the Randolph Foundation (an offshoot of the Richardson Foundation), and Searle Freedom Trust — all of these are leading funders of groups that push climate-science denial, and they also fund chemical industry front groups that deny science about the harm of pesticides, push GMOs and flak for Monsanto and the agrichemical industry.

ExxonMobil and Philip Morris are also among IWF’s funders, according to documents from the UCSF Tobacco Industry Documents Library.Phillip Morris named IWF in a list of “potential third party references” and “those who respect our views.” In their book “Merchants of Doubt” Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway described IWF as one of the “seemingly grass-roots organizations” funded by the Philip Morris Corporation that focus on “individual liberties” and “regulatory issues.”

Rush Limbaugh has donated at least a quarter of a million dollars to IWF, which “defends him whenever he launches into a sexist tirade,” according to an article by Eli Clifton in The Nation.

IWF leaders

Chair of the Board of Directors of IWF, is also the CEO of the Independent Women’s Voice, the lobby arm of IWF. Higgins held senior positions in numerous right-wing foundations, including the Randolph Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation and the Philanthropy Roundtable.

Kellyanne Conway, White House advisor and former Trump campaign manager, is an IWF board member.
Directors Emeritae include Lynne V.Cheney, wife of Dick Cheney and Kimberly O.Dennis, president of the board of directors of Donors Trust and president and CEO of Searle Freedom Trust.

Nancy M. Pfotenhauer, a former Koch Industries lobbyist, left Koch Industries to become president of IWF in 2001 and she later served as Vice Chairman of IWF’s Board of Directors. She has a long history of promoting dirty energy and pushing for deregulation of polluting industries.

IWF’s agenda closely follows the lobbying and messaging agenda of tobacco, oil and chemical industry interests. Following are some examples:

Denies climate science

A 2019 tweet and article from the Independent Women’s Forum praises President Trump’s “pragmatism” in not acting to curb climate change. 

Greenpeace describes IWF as a “Koch Industries Climate Denial Group” that “has spread misinformation on climate science and touts the work of climate deniers.” 

Jane Mayer reported in The New Yorker in 2010: “The (Koch) brothers have given money to more obscure groups, too, such as the Independent Women’s Forum, which opposes the presentation of global warming as a scientific fact in American public schools. Until 2008, the group was run by Nancy Pfotenhauer, a former lobbyist for Koch Industries. Mary Beth Jarvis, a vice-president of a Koch subsidiary, is on the group’s board.”

Opposes teaching climate science in schools

The Denver Post reported in 2010 that IWF “thinks global warming is ‘junk science’ and that teaching it is unnecessarily scaring schoolchildren.” Through a campaign called “Balanced Education for Everyone,” IWF opposed climate science education in schools, which the group described as “alarmist global warming indoctrination.”

IWF President Carrie Lucas writes about the “growing skepticism about climate change” and argues “the public could pay dearly for the hysteria.”

Partners with Monsanto

IWF is a leading messenger for promoting toxic chemicals as nothing to worry about, opposing public health protections and trying to build trust for corporations like Monsanto. According to IWF’s “Culture of Alarmism” project, sharing information about hazardous chemicals in consumer products leads to “wasted tax dollars, higher costs and inferior goods for consumers, fewer jobs … and a needlessly worried, less free American populace.”

In February 2017, Monsanto partnered with IWF on an event titled “Food and Fear: How to Find Facts in Today’s Culture of Alarmism,” and an IWF podcast that month discussed “How Monsanto is Vilified by Activists.”

IWF pushes the talking points of Monsanto and the chemical industry: promoting GMOs and pesticides, attacking the organic industry and opposing transparency in food labels. Examples include:

  • Vermont’s GMO labeling law is stupid. (The Spectator)
  • Sinister GMO labeling will cause grocery costs to skyrocket. (IWF)
  • Anti-GMO hype is the real threat to the well being of families. (National Review)
  • General Mills caved in to the “food police” by removing GMOs (USA Today)
  • Chipotle is stuffing their non-GMO burritos with nonsense. (IWF)
  • Reasonable moms need to push back on the mom shaming and guilt tripping organic food narrative. (IWF podcast)
  • GMO critics are cruel, vain, elite and seek to deny those in need. (New York Post)
  • Educates celebrity moms about GMOs with Monsanto’s talking points (IWF)

2019 update: Julie Gunlock’s “Culture of Alarmism” project is now renamed the “Project for Progress and Innovation.” Recent articles by Gunlock include “Soda Bans Don’t Make Kids Healthier!” and “FDA’s Refusal to Promote E-Cigarettes is a Public Health Crisis.” 

Argues ‘Philips Morris PR’

In August 2017, IWF lobbied FDA to approve Philip Morris’ IQOS e-cigarettes, arguing that women need the products for various biological reasons to help them quit smoking regular cigarettes.

“Clearly, the FDA doesn’t intend to punish women, simply for their gender. Yet, that’s precisely what’s going to happen if women are limited to smoking cessation products that biologically cannot provide them with the help they need to quit traditional cigarettes,” IWF wrote.

In response to the IWF letter, Stanton Glantz, PhD, Professor of Medicine at the UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, said: “This is standard Philip Morris PR. There is no independent confirmation that IQOS are safer than cigarettes or that they help people quit smoking.”

Champions corporate-friendly “food freedom”

IWF attacks the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as “government nannies,” for example describing the agency as “food Marxists” and “completely out of control” for issuing voluntary guidance to food manufacturers to cut sodium levels.

A June 2017 IWF event tried to stoke fears about public health guidance

In 2012, IWF launched a “Women for Food Freedom” project to “push back on the nanny state and encourage personal responsibility” for food choices. The agenda included opposing “food regulations, soda and snack food taxes, junk science and food and home-product scares, misinformation about obesity and hunger, and other federal food programs, including school lunches.”

On obesity, IWF tries to shift attention away from corporate accountability and toward personal choices. In this interview with Thom Hartmann,Julie Gunlock of IWF’s Culture of Alarmism Project argues thatcorporations are not to blame for America’s obesity problem but rather “people are making bad choices and I think parents are completely checking out.” The solution, she said, is for parents to cook more, especially poor parents since they have a worse problem with obesity.

Attacks moms for trying to reduce pesticide exposures

IWF pushes industry messaging, using covert tactics, in attempt to ostracize moms who are concerned about pesticides; a prime example is this 2014 New York Post article, “Tyranny of the Organic Mommy Mafia” by Naomi Schafer Riley.

Under the guise of complaining about “mom shaming,” Riley – who isan IWF fellowbut did not disclose that to readers – attempts to shame and blame moms who choose organic food.

Riley’s article relied on information from industry front groups that she falsely presented as independent sources:

  • Riley described Academics Review –a front groupfunded by the agrichemical industryand startedwith the help of Monsantoto attack the organic industry and critics of GMOs –as “a nonprofit group of independent scientists.”
  • Riley used the Alliance for Food and Farming, a foodindustry front group,to counter “the most common mommy worry — pesticides” with the message that pesticides are nothing to worry about.
  • A key source, Julie Gunlock, was identified as an author but not as an employee of IWF and Riley’s colleague.

Partners with chemical industry front groups

IWF partners with other corporate front groups such as the American Council on Science and Health, a leading defender of toxic chemicalswith deep ties to Monsanto and Syngenta. ACSH is funded by chemical, pharmaceutical, tobacco and other industry groups.

  • In a February 2017 IWF podcast, ACSH and IWF “debunked Rachel Carson’s alarmism on toxic chemicals”
  • ACSH was “fully behind” IWF’s “culture of alarmism letter” opposing efforts to remove hazardous chemicals from consumer products.
  • IWF events attacking moms who are concerned about toxic chemicals, such as this “hazmat parenting” event,featured ACSH representative Josh Bloom andchemical industry public relations writer Trevor Butterworth.

As many journalists and articles have pointed out, IWF also partners with many other Koch-funded activist groups that deny climate science and push the deregulatory agenda of corporations.

For further reading:

The Intercept,”Koch Brothers Operatives Fill Top White House Positions,” by Lee Fang(4/4/2017)

The Nation,“Meet the ‘Feminists’ Doing the Koch Brothers’ Dirty Work,” by Joan Walsh (8/18/2016)

Center for Media and Democracy, “Most Known Donors of the Independent Women’s Forum are Men,” by Lisa Graves(8/24/2016)

Center for Media and Democracy, “Confirmation: the Not-so-Independent Women’s Forum was Born in Defense of Clarence Thomas and the Far Right,” by Lisa Graves and Calvin Sloan(4/21/2016)

Slate,“Confirmation Bias: How ‘Women for Judge Thomas’ turned into a conservative powerhouse,” by Barbara Spindel(4/7/2016)

Truthout, “Independent Women’s Forum Uses Misleading Branding to Push Right Wing Agenda,” by Lisa Graves, Calvin Sloan and Kim Haddow (8/19/2016)

Inside Philanthropy,“The Money Behind the Conservative Women’s Groups Still Fighting the Culture War,”by Philip Rojc (9/13/2016)

The Nation,”Guess Which Women’s Group Rush Limbaugh has Donated Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars to? Hint: it’s the one that defends him whenever he launches into a sexist tirade,” by Eli Clifton(6/12/2014)

The New Yorker,”The Koch Brothers Covert Operations,” by Jane Mayer(8/30/2010)

Oxford University Press, “Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics,” by Ronnee Schreiber(2008)

Inside Philanthropy,”Look Who’s Funding This Top Conservative Women’s Group,” by Joan Shipps (11/26/2014)

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, “Conservative Women are Right for Media Mainstream; Media Have Finally Found Some Women to Love,” by Laura Flanders (3/1/1996)

 

The Future Of Food Needs Transparency And Integrity

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This article was originally published in Investor’s Business Daily.

By Stacy Malkan and Carey Gillam

“Food companies can’t figure out what Americans want to eat,” according to a June Wall Street Journal article.

Food industry CEOs are “rushing for the exits,” WSJ reported in October, and the food lobby is “splintering,” Politico explained, as food companies disagree about how to respond to shifting consumer tastes.

But it’s no mystery what Americans want to eat — or why the food industry is struggling.

Consumers are demanding foods free of artificial colors, faked flavors, pesticides, preservatives, growth hormones, antibiotics and GMOs, as Fortune magazine reported in 2015 — these trends led by millennials are driving an “$18 billion food revolution.”

But rather than provide what customers want, some food industry players strive to confuse rather than comply with market demands.

Among the tactics in the toolbox, they use front groups and friendly academics to push propaganda to promote their products, and denigrate those who advocate for honest information.

One recent and blatant example appeared here in Investor’s Business Daily, in two opinion articles authored by Henry I. Miller, a Hoover Institution fellow. Miller’s resume certainly makes him appear authoritative and impressive — someone consumers could trust.

But in using the IBD forum to rail against the small non-profit consumer group we work for, U.S. Right to Know, he revealed his allegiance to certain industry interests who seek to keep consumers in the dark.

Our organization advocates for truth and transparency in the food system. We spend most of our time filing information requests for data and documents from state and federal agencies and institutions to share with consumers about food policy matters.

Miller has become fairly well known for putting science and public health second to corporate interests. He was listed in a 1994 memo as a “key supporter” of Philip Morris’ campaign to fight tobacco regulations.

He was also named in an internal Monsanto Company document as a resource who could help discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer research panel after it declared Monsanto’s key herbicide to be a “probable” human carcinogen. That weed killer, glyphosate, is widely used globally in agricultural food production.

The Monsanto plan to protect its weed killer could not have been more clear: “Engage Henry Miller” it states. Documents reported by The New York Times revealed that an article posted by Miller in Forbes criticizing the cancer panel “largely mirrored” a draft provided by a Monsanto executive. Forbes severed its relationship with Miller as a result and deleted all his articles from the site.

Miller’s move now to discredit U.S. Right to Know seems driven by the same industry forces that led him to try to discredit the global cancer science group. Offering no evidence whatsoever, he insinuated that U.S. Right to Know is somehow in cahoots with the Russian government.

The slanderous missives are ironic, considering that the public relations firm hired by the agrichemical industry to salvage the reputation of their embattled GMO and pesticide products was Ketchum – the firm that pushed Russia’s interests in the United States for a decade until 2015.

So why would certain corporate food industry interests want or need a front man to attack our little nonprofit? The answer is easy: Investigations by U.S. Right to Know have turned up hidden documents — many of them now posted in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Archive — that have sparked multiple media investigations into the lobbying and propaganda operations of the food and agrichemical industries.

Articles about secretive food industry strategies to mislead consumers, lawmakers and investors have been published in the New York Times, BMJ, the Guardian, Le Monde, Bloomberg, Boston Globe, CBC, public health journals and many other outlets.

P.R. Shenanigans

Along with Miller, Monsanto tapped many other “industry partners” to try to discredit the scientists who warned about Monsanto’s herbicide, including the Genetic Literacy Project, Grocery Manufacturers Association and other food-industry funded groups.

These are the sorts of public relations shenanigans the food brands should shun if they hope to gain consumer trust.

For the record, we have no ties whatsoever to Russia. We are a food industry watchdog group. We examine how the food and agri-chemical industries operate behind the scenes to influence lawmakers, regulators, academics and others. And we share that information with the public.

Truth and transparency are scary concepts for certain corporate interests, to be sure. But these corporate players and their investors would be wise to listen to, and appreciate, consumer calls for honest advertising and open information about the risks as well as the rewards that come with a modern food system.

The articles by Dr. Henry I. Miller discussed here can be found at:

Russia Does Far Worse Than Meddle In Our Elections — It Meddles In Our Science, Part I

Russia Does Far Worse Than Meddle In Our Elections — It Meddles In Our Science: Part II

This story originally appeared in Investor’s Business Daily.

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