Cornell Alliance for Science is a PR Campaign for the Agrichemical Industry

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Despite its academic-sounding name and affiliation with an Ivy League institution, the Cornell Alliance for Science (CAS) is a public relations campaign funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to promote and defend GMOs and pesticides. On Sept. 23, 2020, the group announced $10 million in new funding from the Gates Foundation, bringing the total Gates funding to $22 million for the “global communications campaign” based at Cornell University that purports to “address misinformation about biotechnology.”

This fact sheet documents many examples of deceptive messaging from CAS and people affiliated with the group. Numerous academics, scientists and food groups have called out CAS messengers for making inaccurate claims and using aggressive tactics to try to discredit critics of the pesticide industry. The examples described here provide evidence that CAS is using Cornell’s name, reputation and authority to advance the PR and political agenda of the world’s largest chemical and seed corporations.

Industry-aligned mission and messaging

The Gates Foundation launched CAS in 2014 with a $5.6 million grant in an effort to “depolarize” the debate around genetically engineered foods. The group says its mission is to “promote access” to GMO crops and foods by training “science allies” around the world to educate their communities about the benefits of agricultural biotechnology.

Pesticide industry group promotes CAS 

A key part of the CAS strategy is to recruit and train Global Leadership Fellows in communications and promotional tactics, focusing on regions where there is public opposition to the biotech industry, particularly African countries that have resisted GMO crops.

The CAS mission is strikingly similar to the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI), a pesticide-industry funded public relations initiative that has partnered with CAS and promotes the group. CBI aimed to build alliances across the food chain and train third-parties, particularly academics and farmers, persuade the public to accept GMOs.

CAS messaging also aligns closely with industry PR efforts: they focus on promoting the possible future benefits of genetically engineered foods while downplaying or denying risks and working to discredit critics.

Widespread criticism

CAS and its writers have drawn criticism from academics, farmers, students, community groups and food sovereignty movements who say the group promotes inaccurate and misleading messaging and uses unethical tactics. See for example:

Examples of misleading messaging

Experts in genetic engineering, biology, agroecology and food policy have documented many examples of inaccurate claims made by Mark Lynas, a visiting fellow at Cornell who has written dozens of articles defending agrichemical products in the name of CAS; see for example his many articles promoted by the Genetic Literacy Project, a PR group that works with Monsanto. Lynas’ 2018 book argues for African countries to accept GMOs, and devotes a chapter to defending Monsanto.

Inaccurate claims about GMOs

Numerous scientists have criticized Lynas for making false statements, “unscientific, illogical and absurd” arguments, promoting dogma over data and research on GMOs, rehashing industry talking points, and making inaccurate claims about pesticides that “display a deep scientific ignorance, or an active effort to manufacture doubt.”

“The laundry list of what Mark Lynas got wrong about both GMOs and science is extensive, and has been refuted point by point by some of the world’s leading agroecologists and biologists,” wrote Eric Holt-Giménez, executive director of Food First, in April 2013 (Lynas joined Cornell as a visiting fellow later that year).  

“disingenuous and untruthful”

Africa-based groups have critiqued Lynas at length. The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, a coalition of more than 40 food and farming groups across Africa, has described Lynas as a “fly-in pundit” whose “contempt for African people, custom and tradition is unmistakable.” Million Belay, director of AFSA, described Lynas as “a racist who is pushing a narrative that only industrial agriculture can save Africa.”

In a 2018 press release, the South Africa-based African Centre for Biodiversity described unethical tactics Lynas has used to promote the biotech lobby agenda in Tanzania. “There is an issue definitely about accountability and [need for] reigning the Cornell Alliance for Science in, because of the misinformation and the way that they are extremely disingenuous and untruthful,” Mariam Mayet, executive director of the African Centre for Biodiversity, said in a July 2020 webinar.

For detailed critiques of Lynas’ work, see articles at the end of this post and our Mark Lynas fact sheet.

Attacking agroecology

A recent example of inaccurate messaging is a widely panned article on the CAS website by Lynas claiming, “agro-ecology risks harming the poor.” Academics described the article as a “demagogic and non-scientific interpretation of a scientific paper,” “deeply unserious,” “pure ideology” and “an embarrassment for someone who wants to claim to be scientific,” a “really flawed analysis“ that makes “sweeping generalizations“ and “wild conclusions.” Some critics called for a retraction.

2019 article by CAS fellow Nassib Mugwanya provides another example of misleading content on the topic of agroecology. The article, “Why traditional agricultural practices can’t transform African agriculture,” reflects the typical messaging pattern in CAS materials: presenting GMO crops as the “pro-science” position while painting “alternative forms of agricultural development as ‘anti-science,’ groundless and harmful,” according to an analysis by the Seattle-based Community Alliance for Global Justice.

“Particularly notable in the article are strong usages of metaphors (e.g., agroecology likened to handcuffs), generalizations, omissions of information and a number of factual inaccuracies,” the group said.

Using Monsanto playbook to defend pesticides

Another example of misleading industry-aligned CAS messaging can be found in the group’s defense of glyphosate-based Roundup. The herbicides are a key component of GMO crops with 90% of corn and soy grown in the United States genetically engineered to tolerate Roundup. In 2015, after the World Health Organization’s cancer research panel said glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen, Monsanto organized allies to “orchestrate outcry” against the independent science panel to “protect the reputation” of Roundup, according to internal Monsanto documents.

Monsanto’s PR playbook: attacking cancer experts as ‘activists’

Mark Lynas used the CAS platform to amplify the Monsanto messaging, describing the cancer report as a “witch hunt” orchestrated by “anti-Monsanto activists” who “abused science” and committed “an obvious perversion of both science and natural justice” by reporting a cancer risk for glyphosate. Lynas used the same flawed arguments and industry sources as the American Council on Science and Health, a front group Monsanto paid to help spin the cancer report.

While claiming to be on the side of science, Lynas ignored ample evidence from Monsanto documents, widely reported in the press, that Monsanto interfered with scientific research, manipulated regulatory agencies and used other heavy-handed tactics to manipulate the scientific process in order to protect Roundup. In 2018, a jury found the that Monsanto “acted with malice, oppression or fraud” in covering up the cancer risk of Roundup.

Lobbying for pesticides and GMOs in Hawaii

Although its main geographical focus is Africa, CAS also aids pesticide industry efforts to defend pesticides and discredit public health advocates in Hawaii. The Hawaiian Islands are an important testing ground for GMO crops and also an area that reports high exposures to pesticides and concerns about pesticide-related health problems, including birth defects, cancer and asthma. These problems led residents to organize a years-long fight to pass stronger regulations to reduce pesticide exposures and improve disclosure of the chemicals used on agricultural fields.

“launched vicious attacks”

As these efforts gained traction, CAS engaged in a “massive public relations disinformation campaign designed to silence community concerns” about the health risks of pesticides, according to Fern Anuenue Holland, a community organizer for Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action. In the Cornell Daily Sun, Holland described how “paid Cornell Alliance for Science fellows — under the guise of scientific expertise — launched vicious attacks. They used social media and wrote dozens of blog posts condemning impacted community members and other leaders who had the courage to speak up.”

Holland said she and other members of her organization were subjected to “character assassinations, misrepresentations and attacks on personal and professional credibility” by CAS affiliates. “I have personally witnessed families and lifelong friendships torn apart,” she wrote.

Opposing the public’s right to know     

CAS Director Sarah Evanega, PhD, has said her group is independent of industry: “We do not write for industry, and we do not advocate or promote industry-owned products. As our website clearly and fully discloses, we receive no resources from industry.” However, dozens of emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know, now posted in the UCSF chemical industry documents library, show CAS and Evanega coordinating closely with the pesticide industry and its front groups on public relations initiatives. Examples include:

More examples of CAS partnerships with industry groups are described at the bottom of this fact sheet.  

Elevating front groups and unreliable messengers

In its efforts to promote GMOs as a “science-based” solution for agriculture, Cornell Alliance for Science has lent its platform to industry front groups and even a notorious climate science skeptic.

Trevor Butterworth and Sense About Science/STATS: CAS partners with Sense About Science/STATS to offer “statistical consultation for journalists” and gave a fellowship to the group’s director Trevor Butterworth, who built his career defending products important to the chemical, fracking, junk food and drug industries. Butterworth is founding director of Sense About Science USA, which he merged with his former platform, Statistical Assessment Service (STATS).

Journalists have described STATs and Butterworth as key players in chemical and pharmaceutical industry product defense campaigns (see Stat News, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Intercept and The Atlantic).  Monsanto documents identify Sense About Science among the “industry partner” it counted on to defend Roundup against cancer concerns.

Climate science skeptic Owen Paterson: In 2015, CAS hosted Owen Paterson, a British Conservative Party politician and well-known climate science skeptic who slashed funding for global warming mitigation efforts during his stint as UK Environment Minister. Paterson used the Cornell stage to claim that environmental groups raising concerns about GMOs “allow millions to die.” Pesticide industry groups used similar messaging 50 years ago to try to discredit Rachel Carson for raising concerns about DDT.

Lynas and Sense About Science: Lynas of CAS is also affiliated with Sense About Science as a longtime advisory board member. In 2015, Lynas partnered with climate science skeptic Owen Paterson Paterson also Sense About Science Director Tracey Brown to launch what he called the “ecomodernism movement,” a corporate-aligned, anti-regulation strain of “environmentalism.”

Hawaii Alliance for Science messengers

In 2016, CAS launched an affiliate group called the Hawaii Alliance for Science, which said its purpose was to “support evidence-based decision-making and agricultural innovation in the Islands.” Its messengers include:

Sarah Thompson, a former employee of Dow AgroSciences, coordinated the Hawaii Alliance for Science, which described itself as a “communications-based non-profit grassroots organization associated with the Cornell Alliance for Science.” (The website no longer appears active, but the group maintains a Facebook page.)

Social media posts from the Hawaii Alliance for Science and its coordinator Thompson have described critics of the agrichemical industry as arrogant and ignorant people, celebrated corn and soy mono-crops and defended neonicotinoid pesticides which many studies and scientists say are harming bees.

Joan Conrow, Managing Editor of CAS, writes articles on her personal website, her “Kauai Eclectic” blog and for the industry front group Genetic Literacy Project trying to discredit health professionals, community groups and politicians in Hawaii who advocate for stronger pesticide protections, and journalists who write about pesticide concerns. Conrow has accused environmental groups of tax evasion and compared a food safety group to the KKK.

Conrow has not always disclosed her Cornell affiliation. Hawaii’s Civil Beat newspaper criticized Conrow for her lack of transparency and cited her in 2016 as an example of why the paper was changing its commenting policies. Conrow “often argued the pro-GMO perspective without explicitly mentioning her occupation as a GMO sympathist,” wrote journalism professor Brett Oppegaard. “Conrow also has lost her journalistic independence (and credibility) to report fairly about GMO issues, because of the tone of her work on these issues.”

Joni Kamiya, a 2015 CAS Global Leadership Fellow argues against pesticide regulations on her website Hawaii Farmer’s Daughter, in the media and also for the industry front group Genetic Literacy Project. She is an “ambassador expert” for the agrichemical industry-funded marketing website GMO Answers. Like Conrow, Kamiya claims pesticide exposures in Hawaii aren’t a problem, and tries to discredit elected officials and “environmental extremists” who want to regulate pesticides.

Cornell Alliance for Science staffers, advisors

CAS describes itself as “an initiative based at Cornell University, a non-profit institution.” The group does not disclose its budget, expenditures or staff salaries, and Cornell University does not disclose any information about CAS in its tax filings.

The website lists 20 staff members, including Director Sarah Evanega, PhD, and Managing Editor Joan Conrow (it does not list Mark Lynas or other fellows who may also receive compensation). Other notable staff members listed on the website include:

The CAS advisory board includes academics who regularly assist the agrichemical industry with their PR efforts.

Gates Foundation: critiques of agricultural development strategies 

Since 2016, the Gates Foundation has spent over $4 billion on agricultural development strategies, much of that focused on Africa. The foundation’s agricultural development strategies were led by Rob Horsch (recently retired), a Monsanto veteran of 25 years. The strategies have drawn criticism for promoting GMOs and agrichemicals in Africa over the opposition of Africa-based groups and social movements, and despite many concerns and doubts about genetically engineered crops across Africa.

Critiques of the Gates Foundation’s approach to agricultural development and funding include:

More CAS-industry collaborations 

Dozens of emails obtained via FOIA by U.S. Right to Know, and now posted in the UCSF chemical industry documents library, show CAS coordinating closely with the agrichemical industry and its public relations groups to coordinate events and messaging:

More critiques of Mark Lynas 

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.

Among 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

Climate Science Denial Network Funds Toxic Chemical Propaganda

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They promote GMOs and pesticides, defend toxic chemicals and junk food, and attack people who raise concerns about those products as “anti-science.” Yet Jon Entine, Trevor Butterworth and Henry Miller are funded by the same groups that finance climate-science denial.

By Stacy Malkan

British writer George Monbiot has a warning for those of us trying to grasp the new political realities in the U.S. and the U.K.: “We have no hope of understanding what is coming until we understand how the dark money network operates,” he wrote in the Guardian.

Corporate America may have been slow to warm up to Donald Trump, but once Trump secured the nomination, “the big money began to recognize an unprecedented opportunity,” Monbiot wrote. “His incoherence was not a liability, but an opening: his agenda could be shaped. And the dark money network already developed by some American corporations was perfectly positioned to shape it.”

This network, or dark money ATM as Mother Jones described it, refers to the vast amount of hard-to-trace money flowing from arch-conservative billionaires, such as Charles and David Koch and allies, and corporations into front groups that promote extreme free-market ideas – for example, fights against public schools, unions, environmental protection, climate change policies and science that threatens corporate profits.

“We have no hope of understanding what is coming until we understand how the dark money network operates.”

Investigative writers Jane Mayer, Naomi Oreskes, Erik Conway and others have exposed how “the story of dark money and the story of climate change denial are the same story: two sides of the same coin,” as U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse described it last year in a speech.

The strategies of the “Koch-led, influence-buying operation” – including propaganda operations that spin science with no regard for the truth – “are probably the major reason we don’t have a comprehensive climate bill in Congress,” Whitehouse said.

While these strategies have been well-tracked in the climate sphere, less reported is the fact that the funders behind climate science denial also bankroll a network of PR operatives who have built careers spinning science to deny the health risks of toxic chemicals in the food we eat and products we use every day.

The stakes are high for our nation’s health. Rates of childhood cancer are now 50% higher than when the “war on cancer” began decades ago, and the best weapon is one we are hardly using: policies to limit exposure to cancer-causing chemicals.

“If we want to win the war on cancer, we need to start with the thousand physical and chemical agents evaluated as possible, probable or known human carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organization” wrote scientist and author Devra Lee Davis, PhD, MPH, in The Hill.

Reducing known agents of harm has had “less to do with science, and more to do with the power of highly profitable industries that rely on public relations to counteract scientific reports of risks,” Davis noted.

Defending toxic chemicals and junk food 

When products important to the chemical and junk food industries run into trouble with science, a predictable cast of characters and groups appear on the scene, using well-worn media strategies to bail out corporations in need of a PR boost.

Their names and the tactics they use – lengthy adversarial articles, often framed by personal attacks – will be familiar to many scientists, journalists and consumer advocates who have raised concerns about toxic products over the past 15 years.

Public records requests by U.S. Right to Know that have unearthed thousands of documents, along with recent reports by Greenpeace, The Intercept and others, are shining new light on this propaganda network.

Key players include Jon Entine, Trevor Butterworth, Henry I. Miller and groups connected with them: STATS, Center for Media and Public Affairs, Genetic Literacy Project, Sense About Science and the Hoover Institute.

Despite well-documented histories as PR operatives, Entine, Butterworth and Miller are presented as serious science sources on many media platforms, appearing in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Philadelphia Enquirer, Harvard Business Review and, most often, Forbes – without disclosure of their funding sources or agenda to deregulate the polluting industries that promote them.

Their articles rank high in Google searches for many of the chemical and junk food industry’s top messaging priorities – pushing the narratives that GMOs, pesticides, plastic chemicals, sugar and sugar substitutes are safe, and anyone who says otherwise is “anti-science.”

In some cases, they are even gaining in influence as they align with establishment institutions such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Cornell University and the University of California, Davis.

Yet their funding sources trace back to the same “ultra free market” ideologues from oil, pharmaceutical and chemical fortunes who are financing climate science denial – Searle Freedom Trust, Scaife Foundations, John Templeton Foundation and others identified as among the largest and most consistent funders of climate science denial groups, according to a 2013 study by Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle, PhD.

Those seeking to understand the dark money network’s policy goals for dismantling health protections for our food system would do well to keep an eye on these modern propagandists and their messaging.

Jon Entine – Genetic Literacy Project / STATS

Jon Entine, a former journalist, presents himself as an objective authority on science. Yet ample evidence suggests he is a longtime public relations operative with deep ties to chemical companies plagued with questions about health risks.

Over the years, Entine has attacked scientists, professors, funders, lawmakers and journalists who have raised concerns about fracking, nuclear power, pesticides and chemicals used in baby bottles and children’s toys. A 2012 Mother Jones story by Tom Philpott describes Entine as an “agribusiness apologist,” and Greenpeace details his history on their Polluter Watch website.

Entine is now director of the Genetic Literacy Project, a group that promotes genetically engineered foods and pesticides. The site claims to be neutral, but “it’s clearly designed to promote a pro-industry position and doesn’t try to look neutrally at the issues,” said Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist at Consumers Union.

“The message is that genetic engineering is good and anybody who criticizes it is a horrible ideologue, but that’s just not indicative of where the scientific debate actually is.”

Entine claims, for example, that the “scientific consensus on GMO safety is stronger than for global warming” – a claim contradicted by the World Health Organization, which states it is not possible to make general statements about GMO safety, and by hundreds of scientists who have said there is no scientific consensus on GMO safety.

The Genetic Literacy Project also has not been transparent about its connections to Monsanto. As one example, the site published several pro-GMO academic papers that emails later revealed were assigned to professors by a Monsanto executive who provided talking points for the papers and promised to pump them out all over the internet.

Another example: Genetic Literacy Project partners with Academics Review on the Biotechnology Literacy Project, pro-industry conferences that train scientists and journalists on how to “best engage the GMO debate with a skeptical public.”

“The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information.”

Academics Review, which published a report in 2014 attacking the organic industry, presents itself as an independent group, but emails revealed it was set up with the help of a Monsanto executive who promised to find funding “while keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information.” Emails also showed that Academics Review co-founder Bruce Chassy had been receiving undisclosed funds from Monsanto via the University of Illinois Foundation.

So who funds Genetic Literacy Project and Entine?

According to their website, the bulk of funding comes from two foundations – Searle and Templeton – identified in the Drexel study as leading funders of climate science denial. The site also lists funding from the Winkler Family Foundation and “pass through support for University of California-Davis Biotech Literacy Bootcamp” from the Academics Review Charitable Association.

Previous funding sources also include climate science denial supporters and undisclosed pass-through funding.

The Genetic Literacy Project and Entine previously operated under the umbrella of Statistical Assessment Services (STATS), a group located at George Mason University, where Entine was a fellow at the Center for Health and Risk Communication from 2011-2014.

STATS was funded largely by the Scaife Foundation and Searle Freedom Trust between 2005 and 2014, according to a Greenpeace investigation of STATS funding.

Kimberly Dennis, the president and CEO of Searle Freedom Trust, is also chairman of the board of Donors Trust, the notorious Koch-connected dark money fund whose donors cannot be traced. Under Dennis’ leadership, Searle and Donors Trust sent a collective $290,000 to STATS in 2010, Greenpeace reported.

In 2012 and 2013, STATS received loans from its sister organization, the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which received donations during those years from the George Mason University Foundation, which does not disclose funding sources.

Entine has at times tried to distance himself and GLP from these groups; however, tax records show Entine was paid $173,100 by the Center for Media and Public Affairs for the year ending June 30, 2015.

By 2014, emails show, Entine was trying to find a new home for Genetic Literacy Project, and wanted to establish a “more formal relationship” with the University of California, Davis, World Food Center. He became a Senior Fellow at the school’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy and now identifies as a former fellow. GLP is now under the umbrella of a group called the Science Literacy Project.

Entine said he would not respond to questions for this story.

Trevor Butterworth – Sense About Science USA / STATS

Trevor Butterworth has been a reliable industry messenger for many years, defending the safety of various risky products important to the chemical and junk food industries, such as phthalates, BPA, vinyl plastic, corn syrup, sugary sodas and artificial sweeteners. He is a former contributor at Newsweek and has written book reviews for the Wall Street Journal.

From 2003 to 2014, Butterworth was an editor at STATS, funded largely by Scaife Foundation and Searle Freedom Trust. In 2014, he became the founding director of Sense About Science USA and folded STATS into that group.

A recent exposé by Liza Gross in The Intercept described Sense About Science, its director Tracey Brown, Butterworth, STATS and the founders of those groups as “self-appointed guardians of sound science” who “tip the scales toward industry.”

Sense About Science “purports to help the misinformed public sift through alarming claims about health and the environment” but “has a disturbing history of promoting experts who turn out to have ties to regulated industries,” Gross wrote.

“When journalists rightly ask who sponsors research into the risks of, say, asbestos, or synthetic chemicals, they’d be well advised to question the evidence Sense About Science presents in these debates as well.”

Sense About Science USA posted this response to the piece, and Butterworth said via email he was “disappointed with the Intercept’s misleading article, which lumped people and organizations with no connection to Sense About Science USA together.” He said his group takes no corporate funding and is legally independent from the UK Sense About Science.

He also said, “I have never been involved in industry messaging campaigns — in any capacity, paid or not.”

Some journalists have concluded otherwise. 

Reporters at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Atlantic and Consumer Reports portrayed Butterworth as a key player in the chemical industry’s aggressive PR efforts to defend the chemical BPA.

In 2009, journalists Susanne Rust and Meg Kissinger of the Journal Sentinel described Butterworth as BPA’s “most impassioned” defender, and an example of “chemical industry public relations writers” who do not disclose their affiliations.

 “The most impassioned defense of BPA on the blogs comes from Trevor Butterworth.”

STATS, they wrote, “claims to be an independent media watchdog” but “is funded by public policy organizations that promote deregulation.” Its sister organization, the Center for Media and Public Affairs, “has a history of working for corporations trying to deflect concerns about the safety of their products.” Butterworth said his reporting on BPA reflected the evidence at the time from authoritative sources, and STATS posted responses here and here to the critical reporting.

A more recent example of how Butterworth’s writings played a key role in corporate lobby efforts to discredit troublesome science can be seen in his work on the controversial artificial sweetener sucralose.

In 2012, Butterworth wrote a Forbes article criticizing a study that raised concerns about the cancer risk of sucralose. He described the researchers, Dr. Morando Soffritti and the Ramazzini Institute, as “something of a joke.”

In 2016, a food industry front group featured Butterworth’s 2012 article and “something of a joke” critique in a press release attacking a new Soffritti “panic study” that raised concerns about sucralose. Reporters at The IndependentThe Daily MailThe Telegraph and Deseret News picked up Butterworth’s quotes discrediting the researchers, and identified him only as a reporter from Forbes.

Similarly, in 2011, Butterworth was a featured expert at the International Sweeteners Association Conference, and claimed in their press release there is “no evidence of a risk to health” from sucralose. He was identified as a “journalist who regularly contributes to the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal.”

Emails obtained by USRTK show that Coca Cola VP Rhona Applebaum described Butterworth to the leaders of the Global Energy Balance Network – a Coca-Cola front group working to spin the science on obesity – as “our friend” and a journalist who was “ready and able” to work with them. Butterworth said he never worked with that group.

Butterworth is now affiliated with Cornell University as a visiting fellow at the Cornell Alliance for Science, a group launched in 2014 with a $5.6 million Gates Foundation grant to promote GMOs. The Gates-funded group now partners with Sense About Science USA on a workshop to teach young scientists to “Stand Up for Science.”

Sense About Science USA also runs public engagement workshops for scientists at such venues as the University of Washington, University of Pittsburg, Carnegie Melon, Rockefeller University, Caltech and University of Massachusetts, Boston.

Henry I. Miller – Hoover Institution

Henry I. Miller, MD, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is one of the most prolific defenders of genetically engineered foods and fiercest opponents of labeling them. He has penned numerous attacks on the organic industry, including “The Colossal Hoax of Organic Agriculture” (Forbes), “Organic Farming is Not Sustainable” (Wall Street Journal) and “The Dirty Truth About Organic Produce” (Newsweek).

Miller has also written in defense of bee-harming pesticides, plastic chemicals and radiation from nuclear power plants, and has repeatedly argued for the reintroduction of DDT. He did not respond to requests to comment for this story.

Unlike Butterworth and Entine, Miller has a science background and government credentials; he is a medical doctor and was the founding director of the FDA’s office of biotechnology.

Like Butterworth and Entine, Miller’s funding comes from groups that finance climate science denial – the Hoover Institute’s top funder is the Sarah Scaife Foundation, and the group has also taken money from the Searle Freedom Trust, Exxon Mobile, American Chemistry Council, Charles Koch Foundation and Donors Trust.

Like the founders of STATS and Sense About Science, Miller also has ties to the tobacco industry PR campaigns. In a 1994 PR strategy memo for the tobacco company Phillip Morris, Miller was referred to as “a key supporter” of the global campaign to fight tobacco regulations. In 2012, Miller wrote that nicotine “is not particularly bad for you in the amounts delivered by cigarettes or smokeless products.”

Miller is also a member of the “scientific advisory board” of the George C. Marshall Institute, which is famous for its oil and gas industry funded denials of climate change, and a former trustee of the American Council on Science and Health, which “depends heavily on funding from corporations that have a financial stake in the scientific debates it aims to shape,” according to Mother Jones.

Perhaps recognizing that pontificating men aren’t the best sources to influence the women who buy food, Miller has recently been sharing bylines with female protégés who have joined his attacks on health advocates and organic farmers.

Examples include a co-authored piece with Kavin Senapathy, co-founder of a group that tries to disrupt speaking events of GMO critics, headlined “Screw the Activists;” and one with Julie Kelly, a cooking instructor whose husband is a lobbyist for the agribusiness giant ADM, describing organic agriculture as an “evil empire.”

Recent work by Kelly includes a piece in National Review casting doubt on climate science researchers, and an article in The Hill calling on Congress to defund the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which she accused of “cancer collusion” and “using shoddy science to promote a politically motivated agenda.”

As we enter the fifth decade of losing the war on cancer, and as climate instability threatens ecosystems and our food system, it’s time to unravel the network of science deniers who claim the mantle of science and expose them for what they are: propagandists who do the dirty work of industry.

This article was originally published in The Ecologist.

Stacy Malkan is co-founder and co-director of the nonprofit public watchdog group US Right to Know. She is author of “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry,” a co-founder of the national Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and a former newspaper publisher.