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Debate: The future of biosafety research

“The potential consequences and implications of new technologies should be studied in an interdisciplinary manner.”

Prof. Daniel Barben is a political scientist. One of his research topics is social acceptance of technological innovation. In the 1990s he conducted research at the Social Science Research Center Berlin into the acceptance of plant genetic engineering. In 2010, after spending several years conducting research in the USA, where he focused primarily on nanotechnology, he was appointed to the VDI Professorship for Futures Research at RWTH Aachen University.

GMO Safety: New developments and new breeding objectives for plant research are on the way: renewable raw materials, increased biomass production, resistance to disease and stress. How should we approach these new plants and traits? What kind of accompanying research do we need?

Daniel Barben: Scientific safety research is of course necessary in any event, in view of the potential risks to the environment and to human, animal or plant health. And this remains a very important aspect for regulatory activity at national and international level. But that does not answer the whole range of questions relating to the political relevance of these technologies. These questions cannot be exhaustively or satisfactorily answered by saying that the plants are safe from a scientific point of view.

The aim of adapting to worsening ecological conditions has been criticised in the past, with people saying that pursuit of this aim should not lead to us simply accepting ecological changes and only attempting to find technical solutions. And I think this will probably be one of the main points of contention in the public debate: formulating and implementing meaningful objectives for plant biotechnology developments on the one hand, whilst continuing to take environmental policy seriously and remaining active at this level. Otherwise, you can quickly be suspected of accepting a problem, and of only attempting to find technical solutions, and even of trying to exploit the situation commercially.

The social, economic and political implications can certainly be very considerable, and the challenge will be to investigate interdependence between different technological and economic fields. Otherwise we will be taken by surprise, not only by a lack of acceptance in the community, but also by new problems that will be very difficult to solve. The development of energy crops is an example. Following their massive promotion in recent years in the USA, but also in other countries, in order to create alternatives to oil, there have been some dramatic impacts in areas that had not initially received any attention, such as the increase in the price of maize in Mexico. In this respect, the statement made at the time by Jean Ziegler, who is responsible within the UNO for the fight against poverty, that one should not use food crop fields for fuel production, is worth considering. This is another possible line of conflict that we should keep an eye on and one that is, once again, outside the scope of biosafety research.

GMO Safety: Which role should and can scientific results play in the public discussion about benefits and risks? In the debate about plant genetic engineering, for instance, both proponents and opponents cite scientific research. In recent years there have been several studies reporting negative impacts of GM plants. These studies have, however, frequently been heavily criticised by other scientists because of methodological shortcomings. Biotech opponents regularly claim that the majority of scientists working in this area are biased because they have a technology-centred view of the world or are pursuing their own financial interests. Is there such a thing as objective, unbiased research? Or is research always partly influenced by interests and values? And, if so, how does one deal with that in the debate about benefits and risks?

Daniel Barben: These are, in my view, two major questions that should be addressed separately. One is a question about the weight of scientific arguments in risk debates, and the other a question of the impartiality of science in view of commercialisation and scientists’ commercial involvement. I think we have to make a clear distinction between these two questions.

Regarding the question of impartiality and bias: The natural sciences are no longer purely observational sciences; they are heavily involved in processes of technological development and even of industrial product development. But drawing the conclusion that science is corrupt simply because it is involved in processes of technological development or commercial exploitation is just an allegation and needs evidence if we are to take it seriously. Of course there can be conflicts of interest, and one needs to be transparent about them, for instance by disclosing who a study was financed by. But harking back to the pure, unsullied science of past centuries is simply not in keeping with the times.

Regarding the significance of scientific arguments in risk debates: These debates do not take place in a vacuum – there are institutions involved with them. In liberal constitutional states like Germany, certain freedoms are enshrined in the constitution, like the freedom of research and the freedom of investment. Restricting these freedoms requires special justifications, and risks to health or the environment have long been recognized. In law there is also the interesting wording that makes things dependant “on the current state of science and technology”. In other words, the law is guided by the majority opinion of the scientific community, even if there are dissenting opinions. In the fields of science and technology that are still in their early development phase, it can sometimes be difficult to establish what the current state is. But I would say that this is no longer the case for genetic engineering, where the current status has now been established.

Nonetheless, safety risks remain a controversial field, and this is where politics comes in. There is some political scope for determining what regulatory approach to take. One can say that risks have to be scientifically proven beyond doubt. In the international context, this is usually the position taken by the USA. On the other hand, one can be a bit more open and recognise hypothetically conceivable risks for a certain amount of time that have not yet been proven beyond doubt. This is the case, for instance, with the precautionary principle observed in particular in the European Union.

GMO Safety: You have just expressed one of the main allegations put forward by opponents of genetic engineering: We focus on the current state of knowledge and ignore divergent opinions.

Daniel Barben: I believe dismissing the whole problem as a suppression of opposing opinions falls short of the mark. The problem is rather that it can often be difficult to reconstruct certain studies because biosafety research is so unbelievably complex that it is not easy to replicate them. Of course, we are also dealing here with power dynamics and with differing levels of competence and capacity, which may be massively developed in some places and not in others.

Studies with divergent results are usually subjected to critical scrutiny, and if there really is some truth in the results, then I trust that they would be followed up. And if risks are swept under the carpet in biosafety research, you can be optimistic that there are corrective mechanisms that will uncover the fact – perhaps people involved in the research who disagree with the deception will leak the relevant information to the outside world. This is how big scandals in the field of biosciences have been uncovered in the past, even when famous names were involved. Another corrective mechanism is surely the huge loss of prestige and the potential for legal battles if risks emerge and it becomes clear that people knew about them and hushed them up. You have to remember that all those involved operate on the basis that they are seen to be legitimate. A loss of legitimacy can ruin the basis of existence for a researcher, an institute or a company.

GMO Safety: But if you look at the public debate about plant biotechnology, a lot of attention is paid to studies that criticise genetic engineering, while there is less evidence of public confidence that the established scientific community will investigate the potential risks described.

Daniel Barben: Well, in a controversial area, studies that support one’s own position are always gratefully received – especially if they use scientific arguments. But acceptance surveys have repeatedly shown that science enjoys a high level of credibility. And it is also noticeable that there are many former scientists among the active members of Greenpeace and other organisations. From the point of view of an NGO, the best way to get attention is to point out problems, and the way the media operate, it is clear that problems receive particular attention and are, to some extent, even emphasised. Nevertheless, I have my doubts about whether this actually leads to broad sections of the population ceasing to recognise or value scientific research.

GMO Safety: How can one achieve a rational and preferably constructive debate about the new developments and fields of application in plant biotechnology?

Daniel Barben: One institution that has been tested many times in Germany is the committee of enquiry. I am not saying that we should set one up to look at new developments in plant biotechnology. But the committee of enquiry into the opportunities and risks of genetic engineering at the end of the 1980s did greatly influence the debate and also had a significant impact on the introduction of Germany’s Genetic Engineering Act and its structure. It is in fact one of the tasks of the Office of Technology Assessment at the Bundestag to produce expert reports of this kind. The question is, of course, to what extent people in scientific, technical and business circles pay attention to these papers and introduce them into the public debate.

Processes like ‘civil dialogues’ can certainly be fruitful, but people always suspect them of being measures designed to increase acceptance, and that the questions that are perceived as being really relevant are not open to debate. And if this is the case, you may as well give up now, because then you are simply repeating the kind of event we have seen so often in the past – where opposing views are exchanged, allegations are bandied about, and relatively little is learnt on either side.

A fundamental problem for technology impact assessment has always been that it was relatively far removed from actual scientific and technological development. Then the Human Genome Project introduced research that accompanies and runs in parallel with the technological development: ELSI or ELSA research. But even this research was never really integrated with scientific and technical research and product development. In the USA, I have become familiar with a more integrated form of research over recent years at the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University. This is one of the research centres tasked by the National Science Foundation with researching potential implications and consequences of nanotechnology at an early stage – a political mandate contained in the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003.

One of the centre’s fundamental ideas is not to conduct accompanying research as a special activity for the humanities and social sciences and then to communicate the results to the natural scientists, but instead to look at the issues concerning the future consequences and implications of nanotechnology from an interdisciplinary point of view, together with the natural scientists and engineers developing the new technology. There are, for instance, joint courses with representatives from different subject areas, and workshops in which natural scientists present their current or planned research projects and discuss them with students from the humanities and social sciences. There are also laboratory studies where post-graduate students from the social sciences are invited into the laboratories for a certain period to investigate the research models, how decisions are taken, and so on. The research programme also includes public participation elements. For instance, there was a National Technology Citizen Conference held at six locations across the USA, run by the centre’s local partners, and weeks of moderated discussions on the Internet. We described this package of activities as an ‘anticipatory governance’ approach, i.e. a forward-looking attempt to shape science and technology within society. I think this approach could be transferred to other areas.

GMO Safety: Thank you for talking to us.