Lord Dick Taverne by Lobbywatch
Lord Dick Taverne's  long career has taken in politics, the law, business, lobbying, and supporting biotechnology. Among his roles:
  • Chairman of the Association of Sense about Science
  • Liberal Democrat peer in the House of Lords
  • Non-Executive Deputy Chairman of Industrial Finance Group.
  • Chairman of AXA Equity & Law Life Assurance PLC. 
  • Former Director of BOC Group plc. 
  • Former Chairman of the Institute of Fiscal Studies .

The pro-GM lobby group Sense about Science  which Taverne chairs is one of the Royal Society's closest allies. Sense about Science was set up in the middle of 2002 ahead of the UK's public debate on GM crop commercialisation. It promotes its point of view to peers, MPs and the media and is said to be funded by 'corporations and learned societies'.      

Taverne has long enjoyed a close relationship with Lord Sainsbury. In the late 1980s Taverne, originally a Labour MP, served with Roger Liddle and David (later Lord) Sainsbury on the Steering Committee of the Social Democrat Party, which David Sainsbury bankrolled. Sainsbury also bankrolled the Institute of Fiscal Studies, after being approached by Taverne. Taverne became the first Chairman of the IFS.

Taverne and the director of Sense about Science, , co-authored the article, 'Over-precautionary tales: The precautionary principle represents the cowardice of a pampered society' (Prospect, September 2002). Brown used to work for PR firm Regester Larkin, whose client list includes Aventis CropScience, Bayer and Pfizer. She is part of the Living Marxism network as is Ellen Raphael - Brown's lieutenant at Sense about Science.    

Taverne also has a background in PR consultancy. In the late 1980s Dick Taverne and Roger Liddle founded the consultancy firm Prima Europe. In 1990 Prima published The case for Biotechnology , a paper authored by Taverne. Liddle and Taverne were joined on Prima's board in 1996 by Derek Draper. Prima's clients included Unilever, RTZ, BNFL, and Glaxo Wellcome.   

In April 1998 Lord Taverne resigned from Prima, as a result of lobby-firm rules prohibiting employment of sitting MPs and peers, after its merger with GPC Market Access. GPC's clients included Pfizer, Novartis and SmithKline Beecham.  Three months after Taverne's departure his former Prima co-directors Derek Draper and Roger Liddle were at the centre of the 'lobbygate' 'cash for access' scandal .

Taverne is keenly concerned to prevent 'media distortion' in relation to biotechnology. Taverne claims the media's 'sloppiness' on GM issues is 'undermining the health of our democracy'. Taverne served on a Forum established by the SIRC and the Royal Institution which laid down a Code of Practice and Guidelines on the Communication of Science and Health issues in the Media, which tells journalists how to report GM and other contentious issues. (see Science for Sale)

Taverne was also amongst those involved in the setting up of the biotech-industry supported Science Media Centre directed by Fiona Fox  who is also part of the Living Marxism network. 

In July 2002 Lord Taverne was reprimanded in the House of Lords after he called for Prince Charles to be made to relinquish the throne if he made any more statements critical of GM crops. On another occasion Taverne told his fellow peers that, 'There is a moral imperative for the Government to do everything they can to encourage and promote the spread of this technology [ie GM]'. 

Taverne's attitude to organic agriculture is somewhat different. he describes it as 'voodoo science'. According to Taverne, not just the Soil Association but even the National Consumer Council base their opposition to GM 'on ideology, and they will not allow evidence to disturb their preconceived opinions.' He is even more scathing about Greenpeace, 'With its anti-science dogma, Greenpeace is in some ways our equivalent of the religous right in the US' (Against Anti-science, Prospect magazine, December 1999). Taverne is, however, a great admirer of Sir John Krebs who he has described as, 'the excellent and admirable chairman of the Food Standards Agency'.
Despite his preoccupation with the accurate reporting of science Taverne told his fellow peers in the House of Lords, 'The Pusztai saga and the GM food scares are a shameful indictment of British journalism. It all started when Dr Pusztai fed harmful lectins inserted in potatoes to rats, which he claimed poisoned them.' Pusztai's experiments, in fact, involved a type of lectin that is not normally harmful to mammals.   

In November 2002 Taverne chaired the Scientific Alliance   conference on GM called 'Fields of the Future'.  In April 2004 Prospect published a further article by Taverne, Safety Quacks. Although this piece was not co-authored with Tracey Brown, it drew extensively on a book by Brown's husband, the sociologist Adam Burgess, another LM contributor.

In Safety Quacks Taverne is critical of public involvement in decision making about technologies but says he is willing to see some public discussion where there are 'ethical' concerns. However, public discussion, he says, 'needs to be structured carefully to prevent domination by special interests'. Here Taverne gives two contrasting examples - the 'public discussion that took place in a largely non-adversarial atmosphere before the parliamentary votes on the use of human embryos for stem cell research was an example of effective consultation. On the other hand, the botched public debate on GM crops was not. Anti-GM lobby groups were allowed to dominate the exercise, while the public in general showed little interest.'

What is interesting about this partisan account of the two debates is that while the UK's official public debate on GM was very poorly funded and so minimally advertised, it attracted far more public attention and involvement than the 'public discussion' of human embryo cloning for research. That debate, it has been suggested, was orchestrated by lobby groups like the Genetic Interest Group (GIG) and Progress Educational Trust, with connections to the pharmaceutical-biotechnology industries. Key figures in GIG (John Gillott) and PROGRESS (Juliet Tizzard) are part of the LM network.  

In the Prospect piece Taverne criticises GM campaigners for not protesting against GM drugs while protesting against GM foods. After all, he says, the same technology is used for both. He ignores the point that drugs are extensively tested before being released and that, moreover, they are taken by choice, by people who consciously weigh the risks of taking the drug against the risk of leaving their disease untreated. An individual's choice to take such a drug also does not limit another individual's right to avoid it. GM food crops are quite different in all these respects.

Also open to question is Taverne's account of research findings like those relating to the 'Love Canal' issue in Niagara, New York where 'a community living in homes built on top of an old chemical waste tip claimed that they suffered an unusual incidence of birth defects, cancers and other diseases'. Such claims are dismissed by Taverne as baseless yet five separate studies, two of them by the New York Department of Health, showed that children at Love Canal suffered an excessive number of major and minor birth defects, chronic illnesses, and stunted growth. (WAS ANYONE HARMED AT LOVE CANAL?)