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Chronicle columnist's biotech side job


David Ewing Duncan is off to an auspicious start with his erudite and witty biweekly San Francisco Chronicle column on the biotechnology revolution. Less compelling are his efforts to dispel the notion that the biotech industry-sponsored company he runs represents a conflict of interest.

The Chronicle has run Mr. Duncan's "Biotech: On Creativity" column stripped across the top of the business page every other Monday since February. In his lengthy and literate essays, the award-winning science writer, author, and commentator calls for moderation in debates over the promise and peril of biological experimentation.

He also has recently founded an organization called BioAgenda, which the Chronicle's biography of him describes as "an independent think tank that hosts forums and events on biotech and cutting-edge life sciences." But some journalists have questioned how independent Mr. Duncan can be if he receives a salary from the industry he is writing about.

Serving two masters

"I am very troubled by a columnist who is serving two masters," said Peter Sussman, who worked for the Chronicle for nearly 30 years and is now a member of the Society of Professional Journalists' national ethics committee. "If you want commentary on cutting-edge issues in biology, then hire someone who is an independent expert in that, and who isn't also the executive director of an organization with something to promote."

BioAgenda, whose corporate name is MindBend Communications LLC, is applying for non-profit status. It has raised more than $250,000 from companies including Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Research & Development L.L.C., IBM, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., Hewlett-Packard and S.R. One, Limited (a venture capital fund that is a wholly owned subsidiary of drug maker GlaxoSmithKline). BioAgenda's Web site promised sponsors "media exposure in influential media publications and outlets."

Mr. Duncan, who holds the title of executive director and draws a salary from BioAgenda, backed off that offer in a telephone interview. A day after the interview, the BioAgenda Web site offering benefits to sponsoring corporations was altered, the promise deleted. Sponsors were still offered "special placement in program literature, events, and publications, reports, and web pages."

BioAgenda has informed sponsors, Mr. Duncan said, that they will have no editorial influence over the subject matter, tone or content of any of the forums or publications the group produces. Rather, he said, the organization springs from the best tradition of journalists sparking discussions on controversial issues of the day. No one, he said, has yet paid adequate attention to biotechnology.

"I think having an independent voice in biotech policy issues is crucial as we move into a new phase of development as humans," Mr. Duncan said. "If readers think I'm a patsy for the industry, then they can call me on it."

He added that he has fully disclosed his company's financial ties to the Chronicle and to other outlets to which he has contributed as a free-lance writer and producer, including National Public Radio, Wired magazine and ABC News. He argued that conflict-of-interest rules should be strictest for a newspaper's reporters, but different for columnists, who are allowed to express an opinion.

Chronicle OK's column

Kenn Altine, the Chronicle's associate managing editor, said the newspaper did have discussions over the propriety of having Mr. Duncan write his column, and editors decided that it was that it was OK, as long as his other employment was identified. The identification accompanying Mr. Duncan's column, however, makes no mention of BioAgenda's affiliation with the industry.

"It's dicey territory to have those divided loyalties," said Bob Steele, the ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a journalism education center in Florida. "Disclosure alerts people, but it doesn't erase the conflict. You can have the best of intentions on both the part of the writer and newspaper, but you're going to have to be exceptionally vigilant at multiple levels to make sure there's not an ethical breach. It's territory most editors would not go into, but if the Chronicle is going there they have to make sure the integrity of the paper is fully protected."

The Chronicle's ethics policy goes into some detail about outside financial entanglements, saying "staffers should be wary of working for individuals or organizations likely to be among the paper’s news sources and whose employment of a staffer could appear to create a conflict of interest."

Others cited for conflicts

The policy has been invoked several times in the last two years. Technology writer Henry Norr was fired after he was arrested for participating in an anti-war protest. Writer Rachel Gordon and photographer Liz Mangelsdorf were reassigned from the gay-marriage beat when they married each other. In each case, editors cited the "appearance" of a conflict of interest. But in neither case was there a question of financial gain.

Mr. Altine said it is important to disclose to readers that Mr. Duncan is not on staff, but rather a free-lancer. The Chronicle is satisfied that Mr. Duncan had created "internal firewalls" within BioAgenda that would prevent sponsors from influencing his writing. In addition, Mr. Altine said, there are additional firewalls within the Chronicle. Mr. Duncan is prohibited from writing about any of his group's sponsors.

In his five columns so far, Mr. Duncan has wrestled with roundworms' promise of immortality, geneticists' struggle to save the sexless banana and the promise of embryonic stem cells to cure diabetes. All the while he summons the specters of Frankenstein's monster and Dr. Faustus as timeless literary cautions against the conceits of science and bargains with the devil.

Mr. Duncan has already gotten in trouble with the Chronicle once, for crossing the line between taking sides and collaborating. In his fourth column, on March 22, Mr. Duncan revealed that he was so impressed with the work of one University of California, San Francisco, molecular geneticist studying aging that he had invited her onto the board of BioAgenda. The Chronicle's Mr. Altine said that would not happen again.

Pro-industry bias charged

Mr. Duncan's column on the future of banana cultivation also drew criticism from Mr. Norr in an article for Beyond Chron, for over-emphasizing a biotech solution to the problem of disease resistance and underestimating traditional breeding methods. Mr. Norr wrote that most of the article was "an extended plea for a genetically engineered fix."

A member of the San Francisco Writers' Grotto, Mr Duncan is the winner of last year's journalism award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for an article he wrote on genetics for Wired. He is also the author of four books, including the best-selling Calendar: Humanity’s Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year.

He said it had never occurred to him that there could be any conflict of interest in starting BioAgenda. It is described on the Web site as "strictly independent, designed to be a feisty voice of analysis and critique without influence from underwriters, industries, political parties, or other groups and individuals." Furthermore, Mr. Duncan explained, underwriters are asked to sign the group's "policy of independence." He added that his journalistic reputation was more important to him than the organization, and that he would end it if he thought his integrity would be compromised.

"There's absolutely no one from the industry or Greenpeace or anyone influencing this," Mr. Duncan said. "We're all trying to start something new here."

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