John Innes Centre

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The John Innes Centre (JIC) has been 'a major player in the development of genetic manipulation technologies for the benefit of UK industry.' Its applied work has attracted great commercial interest and has been described as 'underpinning biotechnology worldwide'.

It is located on a 50-acre site in the Norwich Research Park (UK). Also on the site is the Sainsbury Laboratory, funded primarily through Lord Sainsbury's Gatsby Charitable Foundation. Together the JIC and Sainsbury Laboratory have over 850 staff and students.

The JIC's former Director, Chris Lamb, until his death in August 2009, was responsible for the management and administration of the JIC's affairs in conjunction with the JIC's Governing Council. Amongst its members have been Prof Anthony Trewavas, Prof Chris Leaver and the former National Farmers' Union President, Ben Gill (nicknamed 'Biotech Ben' by the satirical magazine Private Eye because of his enthusiasm for GM crops).

JIC scientists have been highly influential in UK government advisory circles, serving on key regulatory committees, such as ACNFP and ACRE. JIC scientists have also been notable contributors to reports on GM that are known to have been highly influential with Ministers, e.g. those of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the House of Lords Select Committee, the Royal Society, and the Science Review Panel.

The late Prof Mike Gale, for instance, was one of four JIC scientists who were members of the working group that produced the Royal Society's 1998 report on GM. He was part of the 4 man Royal Society team who contributed to the report on GM in 2000 of seven national or international academies of science. He also gave evidence to the working group who produced the Royal Society's 2002 report on GM. He served on the Government's Advisory Committee on Genetic Modification and was a member of the Government's Science Review Panel. He was also a member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

In the JIC's own estimation, the exposure it achieves in the media is 'excellent' and helps enhance its external profile. As welll as media work, the JIC's science communication activities encompass advice to politicians, policy makers, and other opinion formers, public meetings, exhibitions, conferences, a special GM website, a web-based schools' project (funded by Lord Sainsbury's Gatsby Foundation), as well as the commissioning of plays on GM foods to tour UK secondary schools. The JIC also hosts a Teacher-Scientist Network which links nearly 100 teachers in local schools with the JIC and the Norwich Research Park.

These activities have proven controversial and several of the JIC's Senior Scientists past and present, including Prof Phil Dale, have attracted criticism in this regard.

JIC and Sainsbury Laboratory 'technology transfer' is largely managed through the for-profit company Plant Bioscience Limited (PBL), chaired by Ed Dart (formerly with Zeneca) and jointly owned by the JIC and Lord Sainsbury's Gatsby Charitable Foundation. In 2000/01 PBL had a GBP1M turnover and a portfolio of over 60 patented technologies.

The JIC is grant-aided by the public funding body, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). Other funding sources include the EU and Lord Sainsbury's Gatsby Foundation, though an email from Catherine Reynolds, Head of Communications at Norwich BioScience Institutes, in October 2009 states, "The JIC has NOT received major donations from The Gatsby Foundation".[1]

The JIC has also received funding from all the major biotech companies, including multi-million pound investments. In 1998 the JIC announced GBP10M of investment by Dupont and GBP50M by Syngenta (the original commitment in '98 was made by Zeneca).

Syngenta's investment led to the construction of a Syngenta laboratory to aid the close cooperation of JIC scientists with up to 40 Syngenta colleagues. According to JIC director Chris Lamb:

Collaborations with companies, such as Syngenta, is one way to ensure science is converted into products that benefit end-users.[2]

Syngenta later withdrew from its deal with the JIC.

Encouraging 'multinationals to build a physical presence on the NRP [Norwich Research Park] in order to work with us more closely' is listed as one of the JIC's objectives in its corporate strategy.

JIC scientists claim to be independent of industry because 75% of the JIC's income comes from UK Government sources, predominantly via the BBSRC. Commercial sponsorship is said to represent only about 10% of the JIC's overall annual funding. In reality, however, corporate influence extends well beyond the issue of direct funding and affects the whole culture within which the JIC operates.

The JIC, as well as being guided by the needs of its sponsors, is guided by the UK Technology Foresight priorities, which emphasise the need for research that encourages wealth creation. The JIC's main public funding body, the BBSRC is guided by the same priorities. It commits those it sponsors to integrating scientific opportunity with the needs of industry. Known as 'market pull', this means that the research direction of the biosciences has been made increasingly dependent on both corporate investment and commercial relevance.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Prof Mike Gale, the former Acting Director of the JIC, stated that any major slow down or halt in the development of GM crops 'would be very, very serious for us.'

In September 2002 it was announced] that the Syngenta deal, originally agreed in 1999, had been terminated by the company.[3] Although a substantial part of the investment had already occurred, it is thought that the JIC may have lost as much as £10M as a result of the collapse of the deal. The Syngenta pull-out is symptomatic of a wider contraction within the agbiotech industry which faces major uncertainties over consumer-acceptance of its products.

All of which throws into doubt the JIC's planned development of its sponsorship-relationships with major multinationals. This has made it necessary to seek out other means of increasing income and investment.

In May 2003 a project was launched entitled Public-Good Plant Breeding. The project involved a collaboration between the John Innes Centre and the controversial lobby group Sense About Science. The project, launched with an event at the Natural History Museum sponsored by Sense About Science, also had the support of the BBSRC.

According to the JIC website, 'The meeting on 22nd May was just the start. It established that it is time to review plant breeding internationally; to think beyond the confines of narrow arguments about some techniques and beyond what appears currently possible to fund or commercialise.'

In other words, the project seeks to promote the view that modern plant breeding of the sort undertaken at the JIC must be freed from the short-term constraints that can come with commercial investment. This is intended to encourage policy makers (e.g. British Government, BBSRC, Department for International Development) and donor organisations (e.g. Gatsby Charitable Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation) to increase their level of investment in order to support GM crop development for innovating plant varieties . The JIC has already benefited in the past from significant investment of this sort through, for example, the Department for International Development and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation.

An additional benefit from the project for the JIC is that promoting 'Public Good Plant Breeding' helps it to counter the view that its research reflects the interests of commercial funders rather than the public good. However, the continuing lack of public support and consumer interest in GM crops, both in the UK and worldwide, means the JIC still lacks a public mandate for its emphasis on GM crop development.





  1. Email from Catherine Reynolds, Head of Communications, Norwich BioScience Institutes, to Claire Robinson, received 22 Oct 2009
  2. "Laying the foundation for more science at the John Innes Centre, Norwich, UK", press release, John Innes Centre, 16 July 2001, version placed in web archive 14 Dec 2001, accessed in web archive April 6 2009
  3. John Innes Centre loses research partner as company re-structures, press release, JIC, 18 Sept 2002, JIC website, version placed in web archive 29 Sept 2002, accessed in web archive 17 Dec 2009
  4. William Surman, New head for John Innes Centre, Farmers Guardian, 2 Mar 2010, accessed 2 Mar 2010
  5. William Surman, New head for John Innes Centre, Farmers Guardian, 2 Mar 2010, accessed 2 Mar 2010