With texts from
At the biosafety capacity building summer schools at GenØk (under the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety), I met Árpád Pusztai for the first time. I had long discussions and personal stories to share with him and his wife Susan. I sensed his deep, deep personal disappointment in the scientific establishment to which he belonged most of his life and the loss of life-long friends (the Gatehouses). In these conversations with him, I realized that my own degree of personal disappointment and loss of trust in the scientific establishment was nowhere near Árpád’s, simply for the fact that I had not really belonged to it at that time in the first place, as a result of my much younger age (it hit me at the beginning of my career, not at the end as for Árpád) and gender (as a woman you didn’t belong to the male-dominated science world anyway, certainly not as a young post-doc and mother). I never had reasons to really trust the scientific establishment, but he did. His disappointment was immense and it left deep wounds that, I believe, never healed, just scarred with the help of his wonderful wife and partner in science and loyal friends, of whom he had many: I count myself to this group.
I also saw Árpád’s unwavering dedication to science and his unshakable belief in the power of the scientific argument in action during a meeting in Austria, possibly more than a decade and a half ago, that he and I were invited to. I have forgotten when and where exactly but that does not matter. After Árpád gave his sober, factual and carefully prepared presentation about his research, a person (professor at some Austrian university) got up during the discussion round and – out of the blue – started to attack and scream at Árpád. He clearly was there with a mission to derail the session or the entire meeting. While the moderator tried to gain control over the situation and get the person to calm down and follow the rules of a respectful debate, Árpád and Susan sat there calmly and listened carefully to what the guy was shouting. Árpád then got up and tried to address this person almost desperately with scientific arguments, even in the culminating moments of this person’s shouting spree, when the moderator was left with no other option but to escort the person out of the room. Even at a moment where it was clear to everybody that this person was not interested in a scientific debate. I would have stopped to argue science a long time before that, but Árpád stood calm and composed and argued science and science only, when this lost soul of a pseudo-scientist was already long gone mentally off-rail in his religious rage and, ultimately, was physically removed from the meeting. It was the first time for me (others followed, unfortunately) to witness personally HOW mad these ’scientists’ had gone over what Árpád had found out … and it also contributed to my realization that it was not about the person (Árpád or me – I had my share of personal attacks, too – or anybody else of us), but about what we represented to them, and our message. This event, among others, helped me to deal with these people rationally, to understand how we threatened their existence – not ours – and their belief system, and how they could not delineate and differentiate scientific critique and science from their own persons. So, thank you, Árpád, you were an inspiration indeed and a role model! I hope you died in peace and, certainly, will rest in peace.
My first meeting with Árpád was in summer 2003, at the Institute for Gene Ecology, GenØk, in the University of Tromsø’s Science Park, in Arctic Norway. With Norwegian government funding for “capacity-building for developing countries” under the recently established UN CBD’s 2000 Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, GenØk organised and ran an annual global summer school for developing country scientists, policy officials, legal/regulatory experts, and NGOs, on Biosafety of GMOs, and along with several others expert in this diverse multi-disciplinary domain, I was one of a substantial number of teachers of this annual two-week global GMO-biosafety course. For myself as a co-editor of the first European Environment Agency book on the Precautionary Principle, Late Lessons from Early Warnings: the precautionary principle 1896-2000, (2001), and an expert not in genetic manipulation, biology or biosafety but in risk and scientific knowledge from a policy, historical and sociological perspective, it was both humbling and more than trivially frightening, to be meeting famous scientific names like Árpád Pusztai (Ignacio Chapela was another of our assembled Faculty, as were Jack Heinemann, Angelika Hilbeck, and Thomas Bøhn, inter alia).
As an ex-research physicist (of materials), retrained in sociology, philosophy and history of scientific knowledge, and becoming more and more involved in critically analysing risk assessments of GMOs, I felt myself a real amateur, so something of an imposter in being treated as a learned professor and teacher in GMO-biosafety alongside such real experts. As perhaps the most experienced and eminent of this group of new and multi-disciplinary colleagues, Árpád naturally treated me as an equal colleague, even though with him I was on a very steep learning-curve in my biological and biochemical knowledge of the nutritional and toxicological aspects of potato- and other lectins, GMO feeding studies, and much more. While his lectures for the biosafety course which I attended as a student were exemplary, my most personal experience of his patience and care for proper scientific rigour – including especially in attempting to identify and test the unnoticed assumptions which can generate perhaps false conclusions, not only in science but in policy too – came in those many one-to-one conversations (we were together every day and all day for two weeks at those summer schools), when I asked him to explain things I had not understood in the formal sessions. Árpád was simply unsurpassed in his patience and generosity in making sure I (often, we, since his conversations were always important for other colleagues too, and his instincts were always modestly but determinedly inclusive) had understood. To me, his own instinct for questioning existing beliefs and assumptions – including his own – was striking. He never accepted an easy conclusion, if there were questions remaining. This – an absolutely central quality of good science – seems to have been his “failing” when he was caught by the TV interview which resulted in the widely alleged and never (as far as I’m aware) denied chain of commands: Monsanto à White House à UK Prime Minister à Rowett Institute Director; which dictated Pusztai’s shameful firing, silencing, and public vilification by even the Royal Society, the so-called defenders of British Science against political interference.
I met Árpád every year, with Susan too, for the GenØk summer school. I always looked forward to this as the highlight of my year to work with him, Susan and the others at the GenØk course, and it was always also a serious lift to my biological learning. Not merely colleagual realtionships but also genuine friendships and a sense of real solidarity was built over these periods, and occasional intervening international events until the Norwegian government decided after ten or so successful years to discontinue its funding. For the length of his time as an unrivalled and uncompromisingly independent research scientist informing all those (over a hundred every year as I recall) dispersed scientists, officials and civil society leaders who were our temporary students, Árpád was – as he had been at Rowett – an exemplary scientist and teacher, and an inspiration; also as someone I feel privileged to call a friend.
Still from the movie “Árpád Pusztai – Whistleblower” by Bertram Verhaag: https://www.denkmal.film/index.php?page=whistleblower-4&l=en
Árpád was a truly inspiring person. His research and scientific integrity were beyond any borders. He was a pioneer, a fearless scientist whose commitment to biosafety research was unprecedented. I had the honour to first meet him when I was still an undergraduate student, and that first encounter changed my perception about science and scientific responsibility.
Just picture: a Hungarian refugee biochemist arrives in London where he gets a job, then a better one in Aberdeen. There he works on lectins for about three decades, publishing books and many papers. That puts him into an excellent position to take up a contract to research whether one can test GMO lectin-synthesising potatoes for safety. He finds to his surprise that they harm rats and he even checks that it is not the lectin itself, using lectin-spiked potatoes as controls. He is worried by this finding and readily takes up the offer to briefly present it on TV. He describes his preliminary experiments that indicate the need for further study but states that he would not want the human population to be the guinea pigs for this. The Director Philip James telephones him to say how good that TV interview was.
Yet two days later all hell breaks out, his contract is not renewed, his colleagues are sacked, his lab emptied. The story has often been told.
What should be the normal course of events with an experimental finding like this, potentially warning of a hazard but not yet proved, an interim report which could be important? Obviously the ‘normal’ response would be to repeat and enlarge the work; the contract should have been expanded, the experiments repeated and extended, so one gets a clearer understanding about the effects of the GM on animals. That should be what to demand for scientific progress. Yet, following whatever went on in phone calls between Prime Minister Tony Blair or his Government and Philip James, Director of the Rowett Institute, the opposite happened. Almost all biological scientists condemned him, especially the Royal Society and other Academies around the world. Árpád had unwittingly exposed the corruption in modern science, but he kept his academic integrity in his warm and charming way, arguing the science.
Here are two stories: early on, Anthony Trewavas FRS (Tony) stood up after Árpád’s seminar in the Anatomy theatre of the Edinburgh Medical School, and suggested that there might not have been so much controversy, if Árpád had first presented his work in the way he did at this seminar. Tony is a well known proGM lobbyist and he and I respect each other; here was some hope that true dialogue might follow. Later on, in contrast, at a conference in Cambridge on the 50th anniversary of Watson and Crick’s double helix (2003), the late Patrick Bateson FRS got worked up about the unacceptable worse-than-student flaws in Árpád’s statistics and condemned his work in the strongest terms. Yet next day he presented a genetic background praising Mendel for his work, and yet showing that his statistics were poor and later shown to be contrived. So much as he and I also respected each other, Pat showed how impossible it was for an FRS to appreciate Árpád. I do not tell this behind Pat’s back: we had a long breakfast discussion and he accepted my criticism. I have never heard an FRS defend Árpád’s work; there seems to be an inconvertible mindset. Yet the anti-GM lobby also sometimes shows a mindset that was too set, picking on every little bit of evidence that GM was bad; many took Árpád’s finding as proof of the dangers. I always regarded this as equally stuck and it served to inflame the debate; what is needed is ‘true’ science, as quietly pursued by Árpád.
In the end, he gave his life to showing that corporate interests are corrupting scientific integrity. Our scientific academies worldwide now need to clean up. Thank you dear Árpád and may you rest in peace knowing that so many love and support you for this.
Árpád Pusztai was a great inspiration to me as a young ecologist/toxicologist. I remember that he had written several hundred scientific publications. Nevertheless, he was very humble and emphasized that all scientific results should be followed up with modified hypotheses and stronger rigour. He also stressed that studies of genetically modified (GM) plants needed to include additional control groups with unmodified plants plus the transgenic product. Only with such control groups would potentially unwanted and unexpected effects of the genetic modification be revealed. Moreover, Árpád had a unique experience with rodents, gained from decades of scientific studies. I was truly shocked about the process he went through after speaking in public about his rat feeding experiments with GM potatoes, which showed negative effects. A merciless and unfair political and historical wheel ran over him. He was fired and banned from his laboratory. The Rowett Institute forbade him to talk to the press. Instead of seizing the opportunity to continue from Árpád Pusztai’s first studies, the researcher was silenced and his laboratory shut down. His testing of GM potatoes producing snowdrop lectins has never been followed up. I will remember him as an excellent scientist and a warm person, who was extremely unfairly treated.
Árpád’s legacy lives on in the students that he inspires. I count myself as one. I teach his story to every new generation of biochemists, molecular biologists, biotechnologists and ecologists that pass through Biology’s compulsory postgraduate preparatory course. I open their eyes to what they think are the benign and sometimes beneficent professional societies that watch over us. His story illustrates the superficiality of the culture of dissent in the sciences and the halls of universities. Those who treated him badly teach the next generation about how easy it is to use positions of power to prosecute personal conflicts of interest, and how they can be wary of it. But at the same time, his is an inspirational story. He did not bend when the times called him and Susan to step forward. I just hope that we did not fail him.
To the more than 600 people in the stand-room-only audience, Arpad Pusztai appeared much larger than life, and certainly larger than the other participants on the panel. His image, projected in Berkeley from an online link to Scotland in what was one of the earliest events of webcasting in the university, showed his hallmark affable smile and sharp mien as he declared himself surprised at what had recently happened to him, the infamous cascade of retribution caused by his report on a relatively straightforward piece of research that demonstrated that rats fed with genetically modified (GM) potatoes had evident damage in their digestive tract, as well as other organs and immune system.
The year when Pusztai revealed this seminal research, 1998, was a historical moment for the emergence of the GM industry; two years before, the first authorization for commercial releases of GM plants had been issued in the US, and the expectation was that within a few years the rising industry of biotechnology would be buoyed by what should have been, for its promotors, a story of technological success comparable to that previously seen in material sciences, computing and informatics. It was on the basis of these expectations that the US Vice-President established all the infrastructure necessary to remove regulations out of the path of the much-awaited industry and its applications, instructing every embassy around the world to promote the advent of the new life-forms. Pusztai was very aware of the precious nature of his work, as he knew his unit within the Rowett Institute was practically the only outfit in Europe (or perhaps the world) systematically dedicated not to the promotional advancement of GM agriculture and animal husbandry (Dolly, the cloned sheep had also been born in Scotland in 1996), but to asking a few critical questions about it. Yet his research was lean and uncomplicated, honed by almost four decades of work at the Rowett Institute, and so were his results. Such clean-cut statements, the histological photographs of unnaturally thickened lining in the intestine of GM-potato-fed rats, the tables of carefully collected data: in their focused simplicity his results gained oversize dimensions against which all the thousands of promotional researchers were shown to have been deluding themselves for decades, when they believed that their work producing GM life-forms could be both radically transformative (hence their
claims to patent rights) and at the same time inconsequential in terms of health or environmental effects. Pusztai had lifted the glorious robe of the GM promise (and also of the academies, governments and many others propping it up) giving us an early glimpse of its feet of clay.
Pusztai always had science and numbers on his side. He even had a count, which he fondly recalled, of the number of sentences (14) and seconds (150) of televised remarks that he made to the BBC’s World in Action in the interview that led to his violent dismissal from the Rowett Institute and the long chain of cowardly actions against him that followed. That such a small number of words on a television interview would cause so much pain to him, but also to the world beyond him, is a measure of the enormity of what he was revealing. He undoubtedly had tickled the proverbial dragon’s tail. As he later remarked, the problems with GM went much beyond the physiological effects that individual products might have on one animal or another, including humans. In his characteristic phraseology: “it will be unforgiven [of us] by humanity if we do not [do proper testing], but use [humanity] as the guinea pig.”
The backlash against him took about two days to be unleashed, presumably the time required for the 150 words—and their expected consequences—to be registered in the US and for the activation of the unaccountable lines of command and power linking Monsanto to the US State Department, and thence to British Authorities and the leaders of the Rowett Institute. It was vicious and unrelenting, and it was sustained for years, indeed to this day when Pusztai’s name continues to be taboo when uttered in those sectors of industry and academe that still hope for some redemption in the public perception of their deeds as documented by people like Pusztai. For all its apparent gratuitousness, such a vehement response was actually in line with the depth of the wound that his work had cut into the heart of the then-nascent industry. That industry’s true disregard for consequence, let alone social or environmental responsibility, would be a mark on it forever in the court of public opinion. Pusztai may have physically suffered under the consequences of his responsible work, but for us that work continues to shine as an example, not least for the value of courageously placing a birth-mark on the beast that was to become biotech’s many-headed hydra.
Indeed, by 1999, barely a year after Pusztai’s pronouncement, the financial world was taking notice. In an influential advisory essay to investors, two Deutsche Bank analysts in New York were warning that Summer against betting on GM crops, calling-out the failed promises of agbiotech, whose “products” were already reviled (and price-discounted) around the world.
Pusztai’s declaration years later, in the 2003 webcast at Berkeley, that he was surprised by the response to his work might itself seem somewhat surprising, given what he knew and how he knew it. But what took him by surprise, I believe, was not really the response of industrial goons and their governmental agents. He seemed to have been steeled to expect and weather that reaction. No, what seemed to have stunned him—and he appeared to remain in a state of astonishment for some years—was the reaction from people who had been his own colleagues, his intimate social world, his source of validation and support, most of whom turned publicly against him on cue from their masters. How could anyone not trust the solidity of support from colleagues after so many years together, presumably following the same goals for the same causes? At the very least, having been admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Society in Edinburgh would surely provide ample protection to the free expression of one’s own convictions, especially when backed by careful investigative lab work?
But Hungarian-born and -trained Arpad Pusztai shared his surprise as well as a marginality of origin and training, in the English-language science milieu, with several other members of the panel at Berkeley: Tyrone Hayes, the brilliant and also persecuted frog physiologist at Berkeley who demonstrated the devastating effects of Novartis’ best-selling Atrazine (the most widely used herbicide in the US at the time); John Losey, who first documented at Cornell the deleterious effects of GM maize pollen on Monarch butterflies in 1999; and myself, Ignacio Chapela, who had been part of a team showing the lack of control over the spread of GM corn by detecting, at around the same time, the presence of GM sequences of DNA in maize varieties in Oaxaca. In that large auditorium in Berkeley’s Willard Hall, audience and panel all shared a rare insight into a unique moment of transformation of the biological sciences that ripped across and against each of our careers in variously distinguished institutions. The ground was shifting, in an almost visible way, under our feet. As if the magnetic fields of the Earth had changed, what we had been trained to think as desirable, critical thinking for one, was not; the researcher’s distance from private or even governmental influence, which protected sciencemaking from conflict of interest, was now seen as incompatible with the Private-Public-Partnerships being presented then as the new paradigm for research. Monsanto, Dupont and Novartis, as well as Chevron and BP were no longer to be held at arms-length, but invited into the most sacred spaces of science-making: governance committees and boards, advisory bodies, grant-giving panels, thesis-guiding committees and worst of all, the classroom. What had been the norm for years in fields such as physics was quickly becoming normalized also within biology. Those opposing these radical changes had “not received the memo,” or maybe they had been educated “wrongly” elsewhere—and were to be neutralized. It was in this shifting environment that a saying emerged among those concerned: “one question = one career.” Pusztai’s, as much as several other cases of the time, made it clear that, in the field of biotech, asking one simple but uncomfortable question—and being true to its answers—would lead to the end of the questioner’s career.
It was also at that time that David Noble, the renowned historian of science who uniquely understood the academic system that emerged out of the Royal Society in the 17th Century, would say to anyone who would listen: “There are only two kinds of academic now: the Bought and the Broken; you get to choose.” Sadly, I never had the opportunity to test this maxim, with Pusztai as an example, before David unexpectedly died.
The transformation of our world of science-making was so deep and radical that it reached into the dynamics of social support networks, and this seems to have been one critical among the several arrows that were already in flight towards Arpad Pusztai by the time he came, via webcast, to Berkeley. Another fellow traveler in the ranks of scientists aware of the impending disaster of GM saw this clearly at the time: Martha Crouch, who uniquely opted for selfseparation from her exceedingly successful plant-embryology lab (and millions of dollars in grants) at the University of Indiana on the basis of her realizations about who she had been working for, would talk about the experience of seeing academic friends with whom she had raised children together turn a cold shoulder, perhaps as a move towards self-preservation, when she tried to use the very network of social relations within the academic environment to question not the technical details of the work, but the cultural fundamentals of what Crouch saw developing at the end of the last Century: an irreversible cooptation of the system for the
parasitic growth of an illegitimate profit interest.
For academics and other researchers who have little choice but to make the campus world their social all, the normative effect of social isolation can be much more powerful as a negative reinforcement than any amount of money. Thus silence and compliance with the new program can be bought without a traceable money-trail, without inducing any overt conflict of interest, leaving isolated scientists turned into compliant technicians in a self-perpetuating chamber of
silence. The resulting downward spiral drags with it not only the psychological well-being of whole communities of researchers, but also the creativity and innovation expected from research. Pusztai had plenty of stored goodwill and optimistic outlook to resist the battering, and his clear-sighted decision not to cower or remain silent often seemed itself as a source of strength in him, but he also had the exceptional and unwavering support of his companion both in- and out of academe, Susan Bardócz, where others were not so lucky. I had the good fortune of crossing paths with them, as an extraordinary team, on several occasions, not least in some of the Summer courses taught at the Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology (GenØk), which eventually became that other lonely institution in Europe (Rowett never recovered this capacity after Pusztai) that could afford the luxury of critical research into biotech—at least for some years. GenØk, I believe, owed not a small amount of inspiration to Pusztai, and for some years it worked to amplify, to a world-scale, his commitment to critical science with a conscience
towards humanity, non-human animals and the environment.
As I remembrance Arpad Pusztai, another historical event transpired recently here, in the San Francisco Bay Area: the indictment of Elizabeth Holmes, founder and CEO of Theranos. Once a darling “unicorn” of Silicon Valley mythology, Holmes was found guilty of fraud by a jury for her false promises made to investors through Theranos. At its zenith, Theranos was valued at 10 billion US dollars and was held up as the shiny example of the biotech industry’s supposed coming-of-age. The court proceedings, however, provided ample evidence of how Theranos was based on a pyramid of compliant silence built by hundreds of researchers, enforced by a promise of endless money but also by a power-board of crusty but powerful militaristic politicians that included prior US Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger and the then-current US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. Holmes could be considered the anti-Pusztai: where she is arrogant and imperious in her ignorance, he was humble from his knowledge; where she was artificially propped by power, he was willing to take personal responsibility for
his research; where she suffered no question to her fake designs, Pusztai held questioning as a fundamental value. Holmes hid a flimsy tissue of lies inside the massive fortress of power built around biotech since the times when 150 words on television could threaten its existence. And she flourished for years before being exposed.
We should thank the workings of the judicial system in the United States for shedding some light into the Theranos case, but we should also ask why it was that the reality about Theranos would take so long to be exposed (by a journalist), and why it was not a scientific or academic institution that did so. The two key whistle-blowers in the case, Erika Cheung and Tyler Shultz, were young, relatively low-level employees, not board members or scientific officers. While the case is being quickly cast in these early days after the verdict as a proverbial “bad apple” isolated among the hundreds of other companies within the “biotech ecosystem” (an
oxymoronic euphemism favored by insiders), the reality continues to beg the simple question: where did we lose the personal and institutional capacity to perform truly critical science within the confines of biotech, and to a large extent within biology writ large? How was that flaunted ecosystem so systemically poisoned, and to such a deep extent?
The answer to these questions must take us back to the turn of the century, and to the dilemma which Arpad Pusztai presented to a system in its early stages of formation: either we faced the real consequences of GM then, or we looked the other way while suppressing the few questioners and wished them away. The first option would have meant a delay of unpredictable length to what was hoped to become the next wave of tech-to-riches development out of Silicon Valley. This was well established from the earliest days of the biotech story when practitioners, assembled in the Asilomar Conference of 1975, chose to look away and shun into
a state of judgmental limbo all GM manipulations that would imply open-field releases (such as all ag-biotech applications) and/or direct animal interventions (such as medical applications). Rather than dedicating themselves to solve the questions raised by large-scale releases and exposure of animals (including humans) to GM life-forms, successors of the Asilomar conferees preferred to simply evade the problem by magically declaring all GM crops as “substantiallyequivalent”
to their non-GM counterparts. This choice to speed-up, instead of cautiously delaying, the multiplication of releases in the dark of ecological and physiological ignorance was really what Pusztai was patiently calling to our attention.
Almost half a century after its foundation in 1972, the biotech world continues to stumble in the dark, making false promises that rarely become a semblance of reality—time and again enacting one of Elizabeth Holme’s favorite mottos: “fake it until you make it.” Decades after Pusztai placed the world on notice about the risk of this recklessness, the “faking it” of biotech continues to underperform. Meanwhile, the damages of broad releases, documented against
all odds as real, continue to develop unaccountably (mostly in rural areas of the Third World), in what has become an open and generally accepted suppression of truth. Timothy Snyder, recently writing about the emergence of “post-truth,” seemed to be describing this reality when he printed in the New York Times: “When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place.”
Arpad Pusztai’s body rests now after his death, but his simply powerful work and example remain for us to follow. Despite all efforts to suppress what he evinced, and to form a shield around the uncomfortable truths of biotech, there will always be young minds asking again the unanswered questions, and finding in Pusztai’s legacy a cairn to guide them on a path of “sustained, collective, critical enquiry”—Iain Boal’s definition of the word “science.” Along the way, those future scientists may find solace in the humble optimism and love of lightness always present in Arpad’s face, voice and manner. They, as we, will remember.