Bruce Alberts: ‘GM crops are not an issue in the U.S.’

Published in The Hindu on March 5, 2009

Bruce Alberts
“We have a policy that we won’t look at a paper for five years if there is any problem, including submitting papers in two different journals,” says Professor Bruce Alberts, Editor-in-Chief of Science.

Professor Bruce Alberts is a biochemist par excellence. He has served in different capacities on a number of prestigious advisory and editorial boards. He has served as the President of the National Academy of Sciences for two terms from 1993 to 2005.

He has been the Editor-in-Chief of the prestigious journal Science since December 2007. R. Prasad spoke to him on a few pressing issues when he was in Chennai recently to deliver the Millennium lecture on ‘Science and our World Future’ organized by The Hindu Media Resources Centre of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation. Excerpts:

About $15 billion of the $787 billion stimulus package announced by the new Administration is for science. How do you think the Barack Obama presidency would impact science-basic and applied research? What more do you feel should team Obama do for science?

As judged both by budgets and outstanding appointments made by Obama so far for science this Administration has shown great respect for science and technology, and has begun with the very best possible leadership in these areas.

However, much remains to be done beyond the stimulus, since basic science budgets have decreased in real terms by about 10 billion dollars a year since 2003, and the stimulus ends in two years.

Why is the President not using his executive powers to expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research? Would he provide federal support (financial) given the current economic situation?

This will happen very soon through an executive order. This will allow National Institute of Health funds to be spent immediately, including stimulus money. It probably only awaits the appointment of the HHS Secretary, delayed because of the Tom Daschle withdrawal.

Unlike clinical trial results that get published, results of GM field trials are never published. Your comments.

That statement is not correct. The Land-Grant colleges in the U.S., are doing research on GM crops and publishing them. These are independent studies.

What I meant was publication of results of trials conducted by private companies.

The public demanded the data of clinical trials. They are much more concerned about their health in [the case of] clinical trials. I think in the U.S., unlike in many other countries, GM crops are not an issue. So the American public never demanded the data be made public. There has been very little pressure until now on companies to publish the data.

Do companies submit the data to the government?

They submit the data to the government. Only the data that the government feels important and relevant is summarised, not the data that would help other companies.

How bad is it for science when the results are not published?

Their [private companies] studies are pursued by the government. The government gets the data and they summarise the data. But the actual data is never published.

But if that is all [that happens] then it will not be good [for science]. But there are major studies done by American universities. They are independent of the companies and they are published.

But individuals cannot repeat the trial and verify the data. How bad is that for science?

Yes, you can’t buy a bag of [GM] seeds and then study and do experiments. It is not that they have not been studied. They have been studied by people who have special arrangements to study them. And any person who wants to study them may not be able to because of piracy issues.

There is a controversy. The question is whether any person should be allowed [to verify the data] or not. I don’t have a position on that.

What firewalls has Science put in place to identify ‘image manipulation’ by scientists submitting their research work on stem cells? How is it that images already published get past the reviewers and get published in other journals?

The editors of Science, Nature and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences are working together on introducing further policies aimed at reducing these serious problems. We all have been scanning for manipulation in all published images, but too many have gotten through recently, which to all three editors indicates a problem that needs to be addressed in this and other ways more aggressively. We are planning to announce new policies soon.

What is the reason for researchers adopting such unfair means?

Image manipulation has become much easier now. It is very easy for students or somebody under pressure to use the modern tools of image processing to take shortcuts. The cases are very disturbing. It is a minor problem…about 1 in 500 papers.

What is Science doing to prevent the publication of such papers?

All the three journals now demand that every paper has to identify what each author’s contribution is. There should be a senior author identified for each section of the paper, like biochemistry [part] should have a senior author and so on. That person has to check the data.

What do you do when you spot misconduct?

In the U.S., we have a clear process. Report the author to the institution’s official responsible for looking into misconduct. And there is a whole process that has been initiated by the government. We do this in other cases as well. But other countries do not have such rigorous special policies.

What penalty is imposed on those found guilty of misconduct?

We have a policy that we won’t look at a paper for five years if there is any problem, including submitting [papers] in two different journals.

What is the current status of the ‘open access’ movement in the science sector? Where do you stand on the issue?

I am strongly in favour of Open Archive for all journals, which for Science makes all research articles available on the web for free after one year. In addition to Open Archive, we made PNAS freely available to 146 developing nations (including India) immediately when I was Academy president. It is not clear to me that large numbers of journals can survive with Open Access for all articles.

However, I laud the efforts of PLoS, BioMed Central, and others for making the literature maximally available where a financial model can be developed that works.

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