The National Research Council (NRC) — the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences — enjoys a reputation as one of the elite scientific bodies in the United States, an independent institution that Congress calls on for impartial scientific advice about topics like genetically engineered crops (commonly called GMOs). However, the NRC's far-reaching ties to biotechnology companies and other agricultural corporations have created conflicts of interest at every level of the organization, which greatly diminish the independence and integrity of the NRC's scientific work.
Among other conflicts, Food & Water Watch found that the NRC (and its parent organization, the National Academy of Sciences):
- takes millions of dollars in funding from biotechnology companies
- invites sponsors like Monsanto to sit on high-level boards overseeing the NRC’s work
- invites industry-aligned, pro-GMO scientists to author NRC reports
- draws scientific conclusions based on industry science
- operates at times as a private contractor for corporate research.
The National Academy of Sciences bills itself as “the nation’s premier source of independent, expert advice on scientific, engineering, and medical issues” and provides scientific opinions on important public policy issues, like the use of GMOs in farming or the use of growth-promoting drugs in animal agriculture. Chartered by Congress to provide scientific guidance to the government, the Academy and its research arm, the NRC, are required under the Federal Advisory Committee Act to limit conflicts of interest in their scientific work.
Yet, for decades, GMO critics have noted that the biotechnology industry exerts enormous influence over the NRC. The organization has taken millions of dollars from companies like Monsanto and DuPont and allowed corporate representatives from these and other companies to sit on high-level governing boards overseeing NRC projects. The group maintains a revolving door of key staff with industry groups, and demonstrates a clear preference for inviting industry-aligned researchers to produce its reports — while seldom engaging critics at meaningful levels. At times, the NRC’s projects on agricultural topics are even funded in part by corporate donors that have a financial interest in the outcome.
These conflicts greatly limit the scientific capacity of the NRC, including, most obviously, its ability to discuss the impact of conflicts of interest on science, a pressing issue in GMO research. A wide body of literature shows that when industry plays a role as an author or funder of scientific re- search, it tends to produce results favorable to industry.6 This issue looms large in the agricultural sciences, as corporations like Monsanto and DuPont have poured millions of dollars in research funding to university professors (including many who serve on NRC committees), authored and funded peer-reviewed studies, sat on editorial boards of scientific journals, and aggressively censored and attacked unfavorable research on GMOs.
In the spring of 2016, the NRC is scheduled to release its newest GMO report that will be published against the backdrop of an aggressive public relations campaign by the biotechnology industry and many of the academic scientists it funds, which falsely asserts that there is a “scientific consensus” on the safety of GMOs. In reality, there is no consensus, and there remains a very vigorous debate among scientists — and farmers and consumers — about the safety and merits of this technology.
Unfortunately, all sides of this debate are not well represented at the NRC, where industry influence has long played an outsized role, creating not only an appearance of conflicts of interest, but actual bias in the NRC’s work. At a time when Americans desperately need an independent, trustworthy organization to deliver impartial scientific opinions on topics like GMOs, the NRC cannot possibly serve this role.