Lord David Sainsbury

by Lobbywatch

Lord (David) Sainsbury of Turville has been Science Minister in Tony Blair’s government since 1998.  He is also a member of the cabinet biotechnology committee, Sci-Bio, responsible for national policy on GM crops and foods, and as such is a key adviser to Blair on GM technology. He is also a donor to Blair's Labour Party. He gave Labour its biggest ever single donation in September 1997. On October 3 1997 he was made a life peer by Blair and a year later Minister for Science.

By 2003 Lord Sainsbury had given over £11 million to the  Labour Party. Mark Seddon, a member of Labour's National Executive Committee, told the BBC, 'In any other country I think a government minister donating such vast amounts of money and effectively buying a political party would be seen for what it is, a form of corruption of the political process.' Seddon said it was causing Labour to lose members amid criticism from the grassroots that the party was now 'in the pockets of the powerful and the rich'.    

When he was made Science Minister, Lord Sainsbury resigned as Chairman of the Sainsbury's supermarket chain and put  into a blind trust major investments in two plant genetics-related investment companies (Diatech Ltd and Innotech Investments Ltd). Innotech has a substantial  stake in a firm called Paradigm Genetics involved in a joint GM-related venture with Monsanto. Between 1996 and 1999  Diatech was granted three patents for GM products that are said  to have the potential to make millions of pounds in royalties.

Through his Gatsby Charitable Foundation Lord Sainsbury has also put millions into the study of plant genetics. Gatsby gives approximately £2 million a year to the Sainsbury Laboratory of the John Innes Centre, which does research into GM crops. Lord Sainsbury helped found the Laboratory in 1987 and his Gatsby Foundation remains its principal source of funding, although it also receives over £800,000 a year from the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council (BBSRC) , for which Sainsbury is responsible in his ministerial role. Its grant has increased several fold during Sainsbury's time as minister.

Like his biotech investments, his Gatsby contributions have been administered through a blind trust run by his solicitor Judith Portrait since Sainsbury became UK Science Minister. Portrait  is also a Gatsby trustee. Although he does not attend Gatsby meetings or make decisions, Sainsbury retains the power to appoint and dismiss its trustees.       

For some, the choice of an unelected biotech investor and food industrialist to be Science Minister, based within the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), is more than emblematic of the UK's corporate-science culture.  While Lord Sainsbury is officially supposed to leave the room whenever GMOs are discussed at government meetings, even if this occurs, critically related areas like the strategic direction and the funding of the bio-sciences and of biotech related institutes fall directly within Sainsbury's area of responsibility and influence.  As The Times (Apr 17, 2002) has noted, 'Suspicious minds looked at the 300 per cent increase in the government grant to the Sainsbury Laboratory and pondered whether this might be linked to the fact that Lord Sainsbury of Turville is the Science Minister.' 

Sainsbury's biotech business interconnections with areas of his official responsibility are numerous. For instance, when Lord Sainsbury travelled to America as Science Minister in 1999, to research a report into biotechnology, he was accompanied by members of the BioIndustry Association, a lobby group for companies involved in GM food (the DTI helped pay their costs). His company, Diatech is an Associate Member of the BioIndustry Association.

Eight days before he became Science Minister he loaned Diatech money to buy a £2 million office in Westminster. Diatech has registered a patent for a genetic sequence taken from the tobacco mosaic virus for use in genetically modified plants. This was developed at the Sainsbury Laboratory  by Mike Wilson who is still a consultant to Diatech. 

In a recent Financial Times article, Lord Sainsbury cites the following statistics: British universities spun off 199 companies in 2000, up from an annual average of 67 in the previous five years and a mere 'handful' before that. The UK’s ratio of companies to research spending is now more than six times higher than the US. 'It’s a dazzling record,' Lord Sainsbury is quoted as saying and he laments the nation’s failure to celebrate such a 'stunning change in the entrepreneurial attitudes of our universities'.      

Not everybody shares Sainsbury's enthusiasm. Professor Steven Rose of the Open University Biology Dept is among those who have commented critically on this emerging corporate science culture, ‘Well I think there is a very real problem from the point of view of university research in the way that private companies have entered the university, both with direct companies in the universities and with contracts to university researchers. So that in fact the whole climate of what might be open and independent scientific research has disappeared, the old idea that universities were a place of independence has gone. Instead of which one's got secrecy, one's got patents, one's got contracts and one's got shareholders.’   

The key to delivering Lord Sainsbury’s redefinition of 'good science', as science which is potentially commercially productive, is the higher education funding councils such as the BBSRC. The BBSRC has won an extra £50 million in funding since Sainsbury became Science Minister. Until 2003 its Chairman was Peter Doyle a director of biotech giant Syngenta.

Prior to funding the Labour Party, Lord Sainsbury was a supporter of the Social Democrat Party (SDP), remaining a trustee until 1990. In the late 1980s he served with Dick Taverne and Roger Liddle on the SDP's Steering Committee. He also bankrolled the party. Around the same time he bankrolled the Institute of Fiscal Studies, after being approached by Taverne.   

In the late 1980s Taverne and Liddle founded the consultancy firm Prima Europe, which in 1990 published Taverne's paper, 'The case for Biotechnology'. Liddle and Taverne were joined on Prima's board in 1996 by Derek Draper.  

In the mid-90s Draper, Liddle and Sainsbury had all left the SDP for Labour. Lord Sainsbury funds Progress magazine, which is mailed free to thousands of Labour Party members. Progress was founded by Derek Draper who later became caught up with Liddle in the notorious 'lobbygate' scandal. Lord Taverne, who had left the lobby group a few months earlier, has remained a keen supporter of GM crops and now Chairs the pro-GM lobby group Sense About Science.   

Through his Gatsby Charitable Foundation, Lord Sainsbury funded 'Biotechnology in Our Food Chain', the John Innes Centre's UK schools' project on GM. The project claims to take note of the 'various viewpoints' but is marked by a consistent pro-GM bias.  

Lord Sainsbury is also a keen supporter of the Science Media Centre. One of the advisors to the Science Media Centre is Diatech consultant, Mike Wilson . Wilson was also one of a number of  scientists with links to Lord Sainsbury's funding network who served on the UK government's GM Science Review Panel.  Amongst these was Professor John Gray from the Department of Plant Science, at the University of Cambridge. He is a council member and trustee of the Sainsbury Laboratory , as well as being on the Science Advisory Panel of the Gatsby Charitable Trust, along with Dr. Roger Freedman of Diatech. Professor Gray is also the chairman of the Trustees of the Gatsby organisation, Science and Plants for Schools, along with Judith Portrait, who manages Lord Sainsbury’s blind trusts.

The Science Review Panel also included 3 scientists with links to the John Innes Centre, which houses the Sainsbury Laboratory - Professor Chris Leaver, a member of the John Innes Centre Governing Council and a Trustee of the John Innes Foundation, and Phil Dale and Mike Gale  who both work at the JIC. Gale is also a director of John Innes Enterprises and a consultant to Plant Bioscience Ltd, which is jointly owned by the JIC and Lord Sainsbury's Gatsby Foundation.