Prof Derek Burke was chair of the UK regulatory committee on GM foods (Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes - ACNFP) for almost a decade (1988-97), during which time the first GM foods were approved for the UK. In the 1980s he worked for a biotech company (Allelix Inc of Toronto) and until 1998 was a director of Genome Research Ltd.
During much of his time at ACNFP, Prof Burke was also Vice Chancellor of the University of East Anglia (1987-1995) and a member of the governing council of the John Innes Centre (JIC). Both institutions have benefited from investment in GM research, with the JIC enjoying multi-million pound investments from biotechnology corporations like Syngenta and Dupont.
Burke participated in the UK government's 'Technology Foresight' exercise to decide how science could best contribute to the UK's economic competitiveness. He was then charged with incorporating the Foresight proposal to build businesses from genetics into the corporate plan of the UK's public funding body, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). As a result, BBSRC developed a strategy for integrating scientific opportunity with the needs of industry.
Prof Burke was a member of the Royal Society working group on GM foods whose report, 'Genetically Modified Plants for Food Use', is said to have reassured ministers on the GM issue. He was also a member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics group that produced the report 'Genetically modified crops: the social and ethical issues'. The report was described by Guardian columnist George Monbiot as 'perhaps the most asinine report on biotechnology ever written. The stain it leaves on the Nuffield Council's excellent reputation will last for years.' Prof Burke was also a member of a small Nuffield working group who produced a follow up report along the same lines in 2003 as a contribution to the UK's GM Public Debate.
In late October 2003 Derek Burke sent a letter together with 113 other scientists to Tony Blair complaining about the Government's failure to intervene in the GM Public Debate in the UK. The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) initially reported the letter as, 'written and coordinated by Professor Derek Burke' (Scientists attack UK Government's 'silence' in GM Debate ) But a THES article of the 7th November said, 'The letter was coordinated by Sense About Science' while a THES Leader on the same topic did not even mention Burke, referring instead to, 'The new organisation behind the letter, Sense About Science'. (Leader: Science deserves greater support). Burke is on the Advisory Council of Sense About Science .
Prof Burke has been a keen propagandist for GM foods. In 1999, for instance, he published a 10-point rebuttal of criticisms by the Prince of Wales of GM food. In an article in the Times Higher Education Supplement in March 2003, he gave advice on campaigning to scientists wishing to defend nanotechnology. Burke told his readers, 'I have spent about half my time over the past six years speaking, writing, giving radio and television interviews about GM.' He advised them to form a rebuttal group, 'You need a group of people, in constant email contact, who are prepared to spend, say, 10 per cent of their week dealing with the issues that have just been raised. We have one now for GM, but it took us a long time to get that going.'
He warned his readers, 'Don't hype. We made that mistake about biotechnology in the early 1980s, and it did us great harm. Achievements were too slow in coming, cost more than originally estimated and delivered less in consumer benefits than we had promised. We were bullish, but if you overdo it, you will regret it. Some of this is driven by over-confidence, some by a desperate thirst for funds. Quick money can easily mislead inexperienced managers into spending too freely and uncritically, and credibility is quickly lost.' Financial considerations are the key according to Burke, '...the consequence of the loss of this technology for society is the loss of the ability to create new wealth. It's my grandchildren that I'm concerned about. How will they earn their living in 20 years? The answer may lie partly in your hands.'
Derek Burke has also been a Specialist Adviser to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.