An article in the Public Library of Science’s peer-reviewed journal, PLOS ONE, uncovered that committee members of a report by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) had one or more financial conflicts of interest (COIs). A private, nonprofit institution chartered by Congress, the NASEM functions as an advisory body to federal agencies and Congress. Established in 1863, it recruits scientists from academia, industry, and nonprofit organizations, who serve on an unpaid basis to author studies and provide technical consultation to the government.
The 584-page NASEM report, titled Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects, was published in May 2016. Some of its principal objectives were to assess the adverse effects of genetically modified crops and their accompanying technologies, such as reduced yields, deleterious effects on human and animal health, increased use of pesticides and herbicides, and fewer seed choices for producers. It also examined negative impacts on farmers in developing countries and certified organic farmland. Overall, the committee concluded that genetically modified crops are not a threat to human health. However, they also have not discernibly raised crop yields. Here is a table of the NASEM report’s findings and recommendations.
Entitled Conflicts of interest among committee members in the National Academies’ genetically engineered crop study, Sheldon Krimsky and Tim Schwab found that six of the twenty committee members had financial COIs according to certain criteria created for this investigation. Some individuals received research funding from for-profit companies related to genetically engineered crops, while others had patents or patent applications pertinent to the subject matter. However, no one contributing to the NASEM report was determined to be financially associated with private entities that have some incentive to restrict or oppose genetic engineering, though one contributor serves as an unpaid advisor to a nonprofit organic farm.
According to the authors, committee members authored the sections of the report relevant to their expertise, meaning some of the findings and recommendations of the NASEM report might be biased. The NASEM website’s policy page defines how COIs applies to committee members: “The term ‘COI’ means any financial or other interest which conflicts with the service of the individual because it could either significantly impair the individual’s objectivity or create an unfair competitive advantage for any person or organization.” While PLOS ONE does not invalidate the findings of the NASEM report, it raises questions about the NASEM’s ability to fulfill its mission of providing “nonpartisan, objective guidance for decision makers on pressing issues.”