The editor of one of Britain's leading medical journals, the Lancet, says he was threatened by a senior member of the Royal Society, the voice of the British science establishment, that his job would be at risk if he published controversial research questioning the safety of Genetically Modified foods.
Richard Horton declined to name the man who telephoned him. But the Guardian has identified him as Peter Lachmann, the former vice-president and biological secretary of the Royal Society and president of the Academy of Medical Sciences.
The Guardian has been told that an influential group within the Royal Society has set up what appears to be a "rebuttal unit" to push a pro-biotech line and counter opposing scientists and environmental groups.
Dr Horton said he was called at his office in central London on the morning of Wednesday October 13, two days before the Lancet published a research paper by Arpad Pusztai, the scientist at the centre of the GM controversy.
Dr Horton, editor of the Lancet since 1995, said the phone call began in a "very aggressive manner". He said he was called "immoral" and accused of publishing Dr Pusztai's paper which he "knew to be untrue".
Towards the end of the call Dr Horton said the caller told him that if he published the Pusztai paper it would "have implications for his personal position" as editor. The Lancet is owned by Reed Elsevier, one of Europe's largest scientific publishing houses.
At the end of the call Dr Horton, 37, said he immediately informed his colleagues and named the caller.
Prof Lachmann, a professor of immunology at Cambridge and a Royal Society fellow for 17 years, confirmed that he rang Dr Horton on October 13 to discuss his "error of judgment" in deciding to publish the paper.
He said he called Dr Horton after he had been emailed, "probably by the Royal Society", a proof of the paper.
However, Prof Lachmann, 67, "categorically denies" making any threat to Dr Horton during the call. "This is absolute rubbish, it would never have crossed my mind," he said. "I didn't accuse him of being immoral. I said there were moral difficulties about publishing bad science. I think I probably suggested to him that he knew the science was very bad. They [the Lancet] knew it was bad science, whether you call that untrue or not, I don't think I used the word untrue."
Prof Lachmann's call to Dr Horton was preceded by a series of controversial interventions by the society on the Pusztai affair. While vice-president of the society, Prof Lachmann chaired a special working group on GM plants for food use last year which endorsed their "potential for real benefits" but recognised the need for further research and monitoring. The Royal Society says that its report is now being used as a "source document" by the government.
The Lachmann group report was published in September 1998, a month after Dr Pusztai first expressed his concerns on British TV about their safety, questioning government regulatory procedures. Dr Pusztai's employer, the Rowett Institute, had authorised the interview, but it seized his data, forced him to retire and banned him from speaking out.
In February, Prof Lachmann was one of the 19 Royal Society fellows who attacked Dr Pusztai's work in an open letter. He and other key Royal Society fellows have since been at the forefront of defending GM technology and extolling its ability to solve world hunger and provide safer food and medicines.
His extensive CV includes a recent consultancy to Geron Biomed, which markets the animal cloning technology behind Dolly the sheep, and a non-executive directorship for the biotech company Adprotech. Prof Lachmann is also on the scientific advisory board of the pharmaceutical giant SmithKline Beecham, which invests heavily in biotechnology. He denies any conflict of interest, arguing that his expertise in the area qualifies him to comment.
The first intervention came in March when the Royal Society, which does not normally conduct peer reviews, took the unusual decision to scrutinise Dr Pusztai's work.
A group of reviewers, whom the society refuses to name, concluded after examining incomplete data that it appeared to be "flawed in many aspects of design, execution and analysis".
Dr Horton wrote a Lancet editorial that month accusing the Royal Society of "breathtaking impertinence". Prof Lachmann, who was not involved in this peer review, nevertheless countered with a letter attacking the journal's position as "absurd". Dr Horton published the letter in July.
At the same time, the Lancet was considering whether to peer review and publish the now famous paper by Dr Pusztai and Stanley Ewen on the effect on the gut of rats fed GM potatoes.
Dr Horton was also considering publishing a second research paper by another team of scientists. They had looked at the same GM protein used in Dr Pusztai's potatoes and found that it binds to human white blood cells. The health implications must be further researched before the GM protein is allowed into the food chain, the paper recommended.
Dr Horton said he never expected what would follow from his decision to promote scientific debate by publishing both papers. He said there was intense pressure on the Lancet from all quarters, including the Royal Society, to suppress publication. The campaign, he said, was "worthy of Peter Mandelson".
The Guardian has learned that these interventions are taking place in an unusual context. According to a source the Royal Society science policy division is being run as what appears to be a rebuttal unit. The senior manager of the division is Rebecca Bowden, who coordinated the highly critical peer review of Dr Pusztai's work. She joined the society in
1998, from the government biotechnology unit at the department of the environment, which controls the release of genetically modified organisms. The rebuttal unit is said by the source to operate a database of like-minded Royal Society fellows who are updated by email on a daily basis about GM issues. The aim of the unit, according to the source, is to mould scientific and public opinion with a pro-biotech line. Dr Bowden confirmed that her main role is to coordinate biotech policy for the society, reporting to the president, Sir Aaron Klug. However, she and Sir Aaron denied it was a spin-doctoring operation.
In May a leaked government memo outlined how its office of science and technology was compiling a list of eminent scientists who were on message to rebut criticism and underwrite the government's unequivocal pro-biotech line.
The Guardian has established that the Royal Society was involved in trying to prevent publication of the Pusztai paper. This intervention intensified when it learnt the paper had been peer reviewed for the Lancet by six scientists, Dr Horton told the Guardian.
The only reviewer arguing against publication was John Pickett of the government-funded Institute of Arable Crops Research. Prof Pickett said that when he realised that Dr Pusztai's paper had been accepted for publication, he took his concerns to the Royal Society' s biological secretary who told him the society was already preparing a press release.
Five days before the Lancet published, an article appeared in a national newspaper in which Prof Pickett broke the protocols of peer review and publicly attacked the Lancet for agreeing to publish the Pusztai paper. Two days after the spoiler article appeared, Prof Lachmann made his phone call to the editor of the Lancet.
Dr Horton said the society had acted like a star chamber throughout the Pusztai affair. "The Royal Society has absolutely no remit to conduct that sort of inquiry."
Sir Aaron said he knew nothing about the phone call to Dr Horton and whoever spoke to the Lancet editor was not doing so on the society's behalf. However, he confirmed that the society had a proof of the Pusztai paper before the Lancet published it.