Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence



Examination of witnesses (Questions 140 - 159)

MONDAY 8 MARCH 1999

DR ARPAD PUSZTAI and DR STANLEY EWEN

Chairman

  140. You do not recollect any—we are told, you see, here, a quotation from Professor James—that you were "bombarded at home by enquiries, praise and criticisms from all over the world", but you do not remember any criticisms?
  (Dr Pusztai) As I said, there were three, I know who the three people were. One, I already said, is the BBC, and that is on record, you can actually listen to it, and I listened to it many times. There was a Daily Express reporter who `phoned me; and there was another one, whom I cannot remember.[
8] But they were mainly trying to find out what was happening. I do not know whether that was, as I say, a blitz, that is not really my recollection; I was certainly given a number.

Mr Jones

  141. What aspect of your work were they particularly interested in; the fact that these rats became ill?
  (Dr Pusztai) You have to understand that when I started off I spent a lot of time, something like over six years, on selecting GNA out, as a gene product which, in my opinion, was extremely safe; in fact, it had quite a few beneficial properties. So it was mainly on my advice that GNA was inserted into potatoes, and all sorts of other things, not just potatoes, but we only dealt with potatoes. So we had this background in it. And when the experiments which we did started to sort of indicate that everything was not alright, then we tried to do more experiments, designing them in such a way that we perhaps could more precisely pinpoint what would be the trouble. And the trouble which we found was, first, that there were, compositionally, major differences—I say "major" quite deliberately—major difference; if you have a potato line which is grown side by side in the same tunnel and has got 20 per cent less protein, that I would regard as a major difference. But there were other compositional differences; now we tried to correct for these, but, of course, you cannot correct for all compositional differences. So we tried to do experiments in which we looked at not just the growth rate—we knew already that the growth would be affected, if you have 20 per cent less protein, by definition, the growth rate will be affected—but we tried to compensate for it, just to see if any other functions of the body, or any other part of the gastrointestinal tract, or whatever other organ, would be affected. And this was when we started to get really very seriously worried about the outcome of the experiments.

  142. Can I ask you: why do you think the Rowett press release of 10 August talked of ConA-GM studies when you were using an entirely different gene, let us call it the snowdrop gene?
  (Dr Pusztai) I think that it was certainly a breakdown in communications, that is what it was. I do not want to say another word for it, but it was a breakdown.

Chairman

  143. Do you think that breakdown in communications could have been rectified had you been shown the press release before it was issued?
  (Dr Pusztai) Yes.

Dr Kumar

  144. Dr Pusztai, you say that you were suspended and then, and I quote you, from your submission to this Committee, "denied any right to clarify scientific or other points and issues." In what way were you denied this right?
  (Dr Pusztai) Very explicitly, I am afraid, in letters, which I received from my Director. Remember that I am an active scientist. The BBSRC staff code, which applied to us, is about 800 pages, I do not think that any scientist has ever read that, but then the relevant sections of that which refer to disciplinary matters were very precisely and extremely explicitly described to me by Professor James in this letter. He said what I can do and what I cannot do; mostly what I cannot do, perhaps, as has been said, what I must not do. And remember that I was in a bit of a shock myself. It is not a situation which you—well, certainly, I never expected to be in that situation, and it is also a real shock to me, and perhaps I kept quiet for a long time; for remember that all our experimental data had been taken away, so I could not say, even if I wanted to say, something about a point coming up, in some press release or whatever, I could not precisely answer it because I had to rely on my memory. I had no data, not till 19 October, well over two months later, when the data started to come back. So it was, on one hand, an explicit command not to speak; on the other, it was that I did not even have the data, so how could I actually explain things in such a way that I would not do anybody, least of all myself, any injustice.

  145. Was it one letter or was it several letters that he wrote to you?
  (Dr Pusztai) Several letters.

  146. Could you provide to us those letters?
  (Dr Pusztai) In confidence, they were confidential, and, of course, I do not know what—I do have them, actually, so we can provide them, if necessary.

Chairman

  147. If the Committee thinks it appropriate to ask for them, you would—in fact, I am advised by my adviser that we do already have them, sealed and in a safe, and they are received in confidence.
  (Dr Pusztai) As I say, they are confidential, and I certainly do not want to—I am very anxious to avoid any sort of ...

  Chairman: Yes, I understand.

Dr Kumar

  148. Is Professor James correct to state that, and I quote from his submission, "the challenge that we `gagged' Dr Pusztai related to our insistence that he only discuss published work when speaking to the media"; is he correct in saying that?
  (Dr Pusztai) I do not know when he did say this; he certainly did say it later, after the event, but, at the beginning, before we started off with all this, remember, this was, how shall I put it, I was, in fact, saying something which was Institute policy, it is this cautionary approach to the whole business of genetic modification, or any other novel food, for that matter. So it is very important that we should remember that this business of me going on the programme was very much a part of the normal publicity, sort of what you get nowadays, because you have to raise money—you have to raise money—and most of the reason why, eight years after I retired, I was there was because I raised a lot of money, it is as simple as that, so if you can get some more money then that is a good thing.

Dr Jones

  149. In the seven weeks between the recording of the programme and it being transmitted, did you discuss with any of your colleagues, particularly those working with you that had done the actual experiments, but also other people in the Institute, what had happened on the programme?
  (Dr Pusztai) The programme was recorded in the presence of the Institute's PR person. Of course, our group was intimately involved; in fact, some of them were televised as they were doing the work. And then there was also a period when we were away; remember, July is the month when people normally take holidays, and I was away, too. We came back well before 10 August, because we did not even know which day the programme would be shown. But within the group we had discussed it extensively, yes.

  150. Discussed what you said?
  (Dr Pusztai) Yes.

Dr Williams

  151. Two very brief ones. Have you heard of any other scientist gagged and sacked in this way?
  (Dr Pusztai) I do not know any other. I do know some, but it is only by hearsay.

  152. And, at that time, or over the next few weeks, why do you think it happened?
  (Dr Pusztai) I would have to speculate, and that, I am afraid, is a very difficult thing.

  153. What went through your mind; what were the reasons?
  (Dr Pusztai) Look, I am a bit nai­ve—I may not look nai­ve now, but I was at the time very nai­ve; I thought that I was going to do something which was, in a sense, an Institute approach to something, and something important, but I did not, in fact, realise, neither did the Institute realise, the huge commercial and other political significance of what I said. It was a bit of dynamite. Now I do realise it, but at the time I did not realise it. You see, on 13 January, I said almost exactly the same thing, on the BBC Newsnight programme. As I say, there is nothing unusual about it.

Dr Kumar

  154. In your submission, you said that the audit of your work was carried out incorrectly and came to incorrect conclusions; how convinced are you?
  (Dr Pusztai) It is a strange business that in a nutrition institute there was no nutritionist on the committee, that is a strange business; and most of the work was nutrition, with all sorts of other associations, but there was no animal expertise, so I thought that it was rather inappropriate to have people on it who had very little animal work experience; in fact, three of the people had practically none.

  155. Can I just check that it took less than ten hours, this audit?
  (Dr Pusztai) I think so, because Professor Bourne, whom I knew quite well, previously, arrived on Thursday afternoon, very late in the afternoon, and probably could have had some sort of coming together with the Rowett members, but the audit actually started at 9 o'clock on Friday morning, and I know that it was finished by half-past three, because one of the members of the committee, with some technical help, was carrying back all the papers, for safekeeping.

Chairman

  156. Could I just clarify one particular point of Dr Kumar's, before I go to Dr Jones? I am sure you are saying that a ten-hour audit on all the work you did was inappropriate, and you have every reason to think it may well have been inappropriate, but inappropriateness does not necessarily result in incorrect conclusions. So, although we might agree that it was inappropriate, are you certain that the conclusions reached were incorrect?
  (Dr Pusztai) The point is that we had done experimental work, altogether something like 170 rats, dissecting them into 20 different tissues, wet and dry, so we are talking about something like 6,000, 7,000, 8,000 bits of information. Now they should have been put into the appropriate statistical analysis, and you can judge it from the fact that the independent statistical analysis has only been done before this week. And, therefore, I would say that it was not really well done.

Dr Jones

  157. You refer to an independent statistical analysis; is that the analysis that has been done by Dr Graham Horgan, which you sent to us? Can I just quote from what Dr Horgan said, it is here, I have not read the whole report, it is just his summary, and he says: "However, no consistent pattern of changes in organ weights was discernible over the four experiments. Diet differences were also found in the immune responses of the rats, but concerns about the experimental design meant that these results are open to other interpretations." Do you agree with Dr Horgan's conclusion?
  (Dr Pusztai) I think that you have to consider it in this light, that we had two different lines, which were substantially not equivalent, and, therefore, you cannot compare four experiments which were done with two different, substantially non-equivalent potatoes; and also there were other differences, not just in time but protein concentration. This was an initial piece of work which was to probe into the whole problem, and the only experiment which you can compare is, for example, the D227—I do not want to—forget about the numbers—

Chairman

  158. Can I also say, Dr Pusztai, thank you very much for that, because we are here really to inquire into procedures and treatment—
  (Dr Pusztai) I am sorry about it.

  159. No, not at all, not at all; we asked the question and you were answering it, so it is not your fault in any way. But we do want to try to keep the details on the science to a minimum, otherwise we will never get through the principle of the matter.
  (Dr Pusztai) Yes.


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