About the author Guido Long

Science for Democracy in the Financial Times

Science for Democracy in the Financial Times

The Financial Times published a letter penned by our coordinator Marco Perduca and programme officer Guido Long on the recent news in the UK that some Conservative leadership candidates have used drugs in the past.

Below is the full text of the letter:

The story dominating the weekend news that Conservative leadership hopeful Michael Gove used cocaine more than 20 years ago appears wholly out of place. In particular, the fact that he and others, such as Rory Stewart, had to apologise for what is a purely private behaviour (in the case of Mr Stewart he wasn’t even in the UK) had a surreal feel.

Instead of discussing their solutions to what has been dubbed the “biggest issue in a generation”, the housing crisis, or environmental degradation and climate change, candidates to be the next PM spent their weekend explaining which drugs they took and why. Home secretary Sajid Javid, whose briefing includes the subject matter, declared that simply using drugs is a crime and hinted that who does is complicit in murder.

As is too often the case, nobody looks at the evidence. Yes, drugs can be very harmful and cause a supply chain of pain, but they do so mostly because they are illegal. The fact that most candidates to lead the country have used drugs in the past shows that mere drug use doesn’t ruin one’s life. It is always the most disadvantaged members of society who suffer the most.

We would expect leadership candidates to detail their plans for a sensible drug policy, instead of detailing how sensible (or not) their youth choices were.

Evidence-Based Policy 2.0: Findings, Issues and Prospects

Evidence-Based Policy 2.0: Findings, Issues and Prospects

Report on the workshop, by Marco Perduca and Claudio M. Radaelli

What is the future of evidence-based policy? Does a new generation of evidence-based policy initiatives exist, and if so, how should we call it, evidence-based policy 2.0? What is the difference with 1.0? We addressed these questions at an international workshop (8 April 2019) hosted by the Global Governance Institute at University College London, School of Public Policy, funded by Science for Democracy – Associazione Luca Coscioni – with a contribution by the Project Procedural tools for effective governance, Protego (European Research Council’s Advanced Grant).

The workshop was organised around a set of round-tables – each round table with its distinctive set of questions. The participants conveyed nuanced ideas and reported on a range of empirics that at least on some issues do not point to a single conclusion. Aware of the diversity of opinions and approaches, we, the authors of this report, want nevertheless to draw what seem to us the most important lessons from the workshop.

To kick off, consider the following, admittedly blunt proposition: the old generation of evidence-based policy initiatives (typified in the UK by the Blair’s government enthusiasm for this concept) was about the notion of using science and evidence to fill in the information deficit of the decision-makers. Key to evidence-based policy 1.0 was the notion that evidence (from the natural sciences, risk assessment, economics, randomized control trails, and so on) would reduce uncertainty in policy choice. Although bounded rationality was already known since the 1950s, the first wave of evidence-based policy failed to take into consideration the way we think. Hence the biases of decision-makers were not part of the equation.

The causal, then, arrow was supposed to work more or less like this:

EVIDENCE -> REDUCTION OF UNCERTAINTY -> IMPROVED DECISIONS [1]

Several empirical studies have documented the limitations (if not failure) of the model portrayed in [1]. The problem is that the policy process features ambiguity in addition to uncertainty – the latter is defined as changing definitions of the policy problem, variation over time on the venues where the search for alternatives is carried out, and actors that come and go in the different venues, hence ambiguity implies instability of the network of actors. Following Paul Cairney and others, ambiguity cannot be eliminated, it is a key characteristic of the policy processes in democratic systems. Neither are policymakers usually looking for a simple yes/no solution to which a piece of evidence can readily provide an answer.

To be credible, the agenda for evidence-based policy 2.0 – we submit – should put forward propositions that apply to a world where both uncertainty and ambiguity are present. Empirically, a sensible agenda for evidence-based policy 2.0 should take into consideration the differences in preferences between politicians and bureaucrats – ‘decisions’ do not come out of a black box, but are the product of the nexus connecting public managers and their political masters. A fundamental lesson drawn from the behavioural sciences is that politicians and bureaucrats, like all humans, have a brain that operates in different modes, is influenced by well-known biases, and is constrained by bounded rationality. The same sciences that have shown the range of biases and heuristics also point to possible ways to de-bias decision-making processes. In short, we are more aware of what happens in a world of bounded rationality, and have learned about de-biasing. Evidence-based policy 2.0 also models the incentives and preferences of scientists and decision-makers, meaning that both scientists and decision-makers are endogenous to the explanation.

Conceptually, this agenda should be sensitive to the importance of mechanisms operating in specific political and administrative contexts. The mechanisms are the WHY of the explanation, they tell us why certain things happen or do not happen in evidence-based policy processes. These mechanisms are not the same everywhere, every time. Indeed, they operate in specific contexts where governance is modelled around relations between elected politicians and public organizations (such as government departments and regulatory agencies). Further, today the problem is less one of information deficit and more one of information surplus, or how to direct attention in a world where information has low cost and is available, albeit its quality may differ greatly.

To wrap up, the three important points for the evidence-based policy 2.0 agenda are: (1) there is ambiguity as well as uncertainty in the public policy processes (2) these processes feature various types of linkages between evidence and decisions, in different settings, with a realistic model of how the brain of decision-makers works and its biases; and (3) there is a high ratio of noise to signal, or surplus of information.

The arrows of evidence-based policy 2.0 are represented in [2]:

SCIENCE AND EVIDENCE -> DECISION-MAKING PROCESS = Function of (UNCERTAINTY + AMBIGUITY) -> MECHANISMS IN CONTEXT-> REAL-WORLD POLITICIANS AND BUREAUCRATS MAKE DECISIONS [2]

One way to present the findings of our workshop is that collectively, as a group, we tried to put flesh on the bare bones of the causal relationship [2]. Another exercise is to take a critical look at the bones, and then re-think about the flesh. In fact, the correct causal bones may not be the ones portrayed in [2]. It is fair to argue that public policy and social norms shape the kind of science and evidence that is allowed or not allowed to feed into the decision-making process. Further, we know that systems like ‘science’ ‘society’ ‘law-making’ follow their internal logic, whilst the arrows make us think of smooth or at least logical sequences. Following Boswell and Smith, we can think of four models of research-and-policy interactions: (a) research, science and evidence are used to make public decisions (b) political power and social norms shape knowledge (c) co-production of socially-relevant knowledge in the spheres of research and governance; and (d) research and policy are definitively autonomous worlds. All approaches deserve attention, particularly at a moment when governments design policies and funding mechanisms for universities based on ‘impact of research’. These policies should not presuppose simplistic understandings of concepts like ‘impact’ and ‘utilization of knowledge by policy-makers’ – an example being the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the UK. The risks are to misallocate funding and to give the wrong incentives to researchers.

MODELING ACTORS – Consider the arrows in [2]. We see different actors, namely scientists, politicians, and bureaucrats. At a minimum we should model these actors. What do they want? Decades of research in public management and political science have informed us of the different preferences of politicians and bureaucrats. They want different things: consensus and votes for politicians, task expansion, reputation and standard operating procedures for public managers. But it is not just a question of preferences. There are also social norms and emotions. Whether we look at how organizations learn, the logic of negotiating truth in science and public policy, or at field experiments the message is that emotions carry explanatory leverage when it comes to the delivery of evidence-based policy. Thus evidence-based policy 2.0 should accommodate both the logic of incentives and the logic of emotions – at a higher conceptual level, choice and appropriateness, in a context of bounded rationality, heuristics and biases. Finally, no matter what the logic of interests and emotions tells us, there is the hard ceiling (for evidence to make an impact into policy) of organizational capacity.

OF SCIENCE AND SCIENTISTS – And yet, we have not said a word about the other actor, the scientist. Here science and technology studies provide their lessons. Although we assume that evidence-based policy 1.0 is typical of naïve policy-makers, the same naïve belief may exist in the mind of scientists when they discount the complexity (as well as the values) of public decision-making. If we say that all scientists have to do is to speak the truth to power, we cover only a fraction of the evidence-based policy 2.0 picture. As research on policy learning has demonstrated, the speaking-the-truth-to-power attitude of the scientist brings failure given certain characteristics of the policy process. It can work when the policy process approaches the conditions of epistemic learning: but it delivers much less as soon as we enter bargaining, authority, or a level-playing field between lay and professional knowledge.

More fundamentally, speaking the truth to power does not tell us anything about the preferences of scientists. They care about truth and science, of course. But they also care about their reputation and funds for their institutes and projects. This is not necessarily a bad thing, of course. Actually, in some circumstances being dependent on funding from policy makers can have a good effect. One can argue that researchers who need to compete for funding from policy makers and bureaucracies have a better understanding of the policy process and the needs of their clients – they have to, in order to get funding.

Some scientists pursue their preferences by talking up science. Some of us pointed to cases when scientists oversell. They do so because they want more prestige and want to perforate the veil of communication with public opinion and decision-makers. The phenomenon may not entail anything wrong: a climate scientist with information about seasonal forecasts sees the importance of this information and is puzzled why it is not used to a larger extent. A policy maker may not quite understand how to use this information. Thus, the scientist keeps pushing with the evidence on the table. Is this really overselling?

There is also an issue about communication. Communicating the bounds of knowledge in the language of probability is correct. It mitigates the tendency to overselling. This is the territory of probability, sensitivity analysis and the language of incredible certitude. Scientists should adopt the language of humble science, prudence, and openness to conjectures and confutations. And yet, other participants asked: how exactly will being humble and speaking the language of probability contribute towards success in conveying the climate change challenge that we face? How can this approach meet the logic of communication in a world of fast, succinct social media?

We settled on the following proposition: Science can help policymakers make sense of their own ambiguity but they have to accept their own uncertainty.

Further, where does communication takes place? There are venues other than social media, such as deliberative and participatory settings. Although there is a lot of talking about the loss of trust in experts, deliberative and participatory policy experiments suggest that ordinary citizens may benefit the dialogue with scientists given the correct scope conditions. The conditions for public engagement as means to increase or restore public trust in science and experts are: to avoid self-selection (that is, only the already knowledgeable and educated citizens participate), to calibrate engagement so that citizens can effectively develop their knowledge during citizens-experts panels, and to avoid domination. Crucial is the coupling between deliberative and institutional fora. Engagement deteriorates in quality and participation over time, unless the results of the engagement feed into the decision-making process. Co-production of research with the stakeholders is a collaborative model often presented as a template. But some argue that coproduction has many hidden costs, which are unequally borne by participants.

Finally, we often think of science as something public, done in universities and public institutions, publicly funded labs for example. But today a lot of science is commercial. The scientific enterprise is carried out in private settings by company labs. In a post-industrial economy, the private sources of research and development is inevitable and not problematic in itself. What is problematic is the accountability issue, for example the failure of pharma companies to report negative findings. Of course, failure to publish negative results is not unique to the private sector, but it is a problem given financial implications for coverage. Other participants observed that when it comes to trust and accountability, the issue is not necessarily related to whether for example a research institute is privately owned or not, citing examples from Scandinavia.

UNCERTAINTY AND USAGES – The effects of uncertainty on science and public decisions are asymmetrical. Uncertainty is precious in science, it is the trigger of the scientific enquiry, it is always there in processes of scientific discovery and scientific enquiry. In a sense for a scientist more uncertainty in a given domain is a good thing, it means that there is a lot of promising research that can be done. For policy-makers, instead, uncertainty is, so to speak, ‘bad’. Policy-makers do not want to follow arguments cast in the logic of uncertainty. When this asymmetry is coupled with ambiguity, the scene is set for multiple usages of science in public decisions. Science can be used INSTRUMENTALLY to improve on policies, or POLITICALLY to improve on popularity, elections, visibility, campaigns, and so on. Governments adopt reforms that have higher expected political payoffs rather than those with higher instrumental value. However, if one wants to reform and use science instrumentally, one has to be aware of the political feasibility of the reform. Consequently, not always do instrumental and political considerations clash, they can also be complementary.

Science can also be deployed SYMBOLICALLY to put a veneer of ‘scientific’ justification on decisions. This is a kind of back-of-the-envelope, justificatory science. For this reason, the evaluation of evidence used in public decision-making processes should be as pluralistic as possible. A sort of society-wide review of the scientific basis of public decisions (coming from different institutes and think tanks) and citizens mobilized to defend and extend their right to science are important. On the first point (that is, wide societal and pluralistic review), regulators and governments should assist with funds institutes and think tanks to carry out their own autonomous review of the evidence used by regulatory agencies and lawmakers, at least in cases of major controversial regulations. This idea was originally discussed in the USA by Resources for the Future, but it could be applied to the European Union. On the second point, the examples of Sense about Science and Science for Democracy show how advocacy for the campaign for the right to science may work in Europe and at the level of the United Nations.

SUCCESS? Whether we call is evidence-based or evidence-inspired policy, we must be clear on the goal we have in mind. There are fundamental dimensions of success:

(a) In INFLUENCING policy makers
(b) On the SUBSTANCE of policy. The policy-makers may ‘successfully learn’ the wrong lesson by considering the weaker scientific argument because it is close to their ideology, and not learn the correct lesson. Clearly, this is not successful evidence-based policy in terms of substance, although the decision-makers, in this case, have been definitively ‘influenced’ by science.
(c) Success on preventing wrong choices, and more generally success as REACTIVE mode
(d) Success as PROACTIVE mode, in leading towards the right choice

Although there is no hard evidence, the literature seems to point more frequently to success in reactive mode – that is, cumulative evidence assists when failure of existing decisions or non-decisions is wide-spread. The challenge is to generate success in proactive mode and in science-based issues.

Finally, there is the problem of documenting success. Arguably, there is a publication bias towards documenting more failure than success. Of course, studying the inefficiencies and limitations of the use of science in public decisions is instructive. Scientists embrace a critical and sceptical thinking of what the government does. For public managers the incentive to document success is instead visible: they need to collate and show success to be promoted in their career, to show how they spend their budget, to report on how well their country is doing within international organisations. The two worlds operate with different biases, and we cannot simply average out the two biases – of social scientists and policy makers. For sure, social scientists should correct their bias – possibly encouraged by the choices made by editorial committees of the main outlets for policy research, such as policy research journals.

SUPPLY AND DEMAND – We often focus on the supply of evidence and how it should be considered by decision makers as well as the public. But what about the demand side? In terms of design, it is useful to think of ways in which advocacy organizations such as Science for Democracy can put pressure on politicians and regulators, make it costly to ignore evidence, and make them more likely to demand science. Procedural regulatory instruments make public administration accountable to science (broadly conceived) by design. Examples are the obligation to consult experts, to carry out and publish risk assessment, to provide estimates and sensitivity analyses on the impact on the environment of legislative and regulatory policy proposals, to use or not use a given discount rate and value-for-life estimates in policy formulation, to rely on objective counterfactual analysis in the evaluation of policy programs. These instrumentations for ‘accountability by design’ are examined in the Protego project for the EU-28 and the EU. Further, deliberative exercises that increase public awareness and interest in science would not be ignored by politicians. Transparency reviews put pressure on decision-making. Official statistics should be framed and addressed as public goods, and protected as such.

UNDERSTANDING OF SCIENCE, UNDERSTANDING OF POLICY PROCESSES – Considerable efforts have been done in increasing the public understanding of science. One important goal in these efforts is to raise awareness of science among politicians and bureaucrats. However, these actors do not necessarily have truth and knowledge as their priority. For this reason a new generation of efforts should be directed in raising the scientists’ awareness of the fundamental variables at play in the policy process and modes of learning in public policy. In short, after having tried to explain science to politicians and regulators, the social scientists should also empower natural scientists by explaining them how policy processes vary depending on key variables. This can be done by condensing our knowledge of policy processes into formats and presentations (someone said ‘tablets’) with high potential for dissemination. It also requires a new commitment of social scientists to judge the quality of their research in terms of how many audiences it can reach, beyond the community of other social scientists. This vision has been called translational social science, but has many roots, such as evidence use, research uptake, knowledge mobilisation and meta-science. Whatever our backgrounds, scientists need to be cautious about how, when and whether to engage, and to ensure they are using evidence-informed techniques to do so.

Here you can find the list of Participants and themes of the Round tables.

Use of male mice skews drug research against women, study finds

Use of male mice skews drug research against women, study finds

Male animal bias is unjustified and can lead to drugs that work less well for women

The male mind is rational and orderly while the female one is complicated and hormonal. It is a stereotype that has skewed decades of neuroscience research towards using almost exclusively male mice and other laboratory animals, according to a new study.

Scientists have typically justified excluding female animals from experiments – even when studying conditions that are more likely to affect women – on the basis that fluctuating hormones would render the results uninterpretable. However, according to Rebecca Shansky, a neuroscientist at Northeastern University, in Boston, it is entirely unjustified by scientific evidence, which shows that, if anything, the hormones and behaviour of male rodents are less stable than those of females.

Shansky is calling for stricter requirements to include animals of both sexes in research, saying the failure to do so has led to the development of drugs that work less well in women.

“People like to think they’re being objective and uninfluenced by stereotypes but there are some unconscious biases that have been applied to how we think about using female animals as research subjects that should be looked at by scientists,” she said.

The male bias is seen across all fields of pre-clinical research, but one of the starkest areas is neuroscience, in which male animals outnumber females by nearly six to one. And considering the brain through a “male lens” has had public health implications, according to Shansky’s article, published in the journal Science.

In one recent example, the sleeping drug Ambien, which had been tested in male animals and then men in clinical trials, was later shown to be far more potent in women because it was metabolised more slowly in the female body. Across all drugs, women tended to suffer more adverse side effects and overdoses.

Major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are twice as prevalent in women, but tests designed to mimic their symptoms in rodents are typically developed and validated in males. Shansky’s work shows male and female rodents can behave differently in such experiments, which could provide new insights into these conditions.

Recent research has challenged the reasoning behind using almost exclusively male animals, with one analysis of nearly 300 neuroscience studies revealing that data collected from female mice was not more variable than that from males – in fact, for some measures, the reverse was true.

Female rodents have a four- to five-day reproductive cycle, during which oestrogen and progesterone increase roughly fourfold. However, male mice housed together establish a dominance hierarchy in which the circulating testosterone levels in the dominant males are, on average, five times as high as the subordinates.

This evidence has led the US National Institutes of Health and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to introduce mandates in 2016 to include both sexes in research. However, major UK funders such as the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council have yet to introduce any similar requirements. “Now that the US and Canada have made these mandates it’s time for Europe to step up,” said Shansky.

She is also concerned about the approach taken by some research teams in the US which incorporate both sexes in experiments by working things out in males first and then repeating it in females. “It perpetuates the dated, sexist and scientifically inaccurate idea that male brains are a standard from which female brains deviate,” she said.

Ironically, Shansky said, the ways in which the male and female brains differ may have remained under-investigated due to a backlash against the idea of there being meaningful differences between the male and female brain.

“There’s a concern that research that shows sex differences in the brain will be weaponised by misogynists or used to justify and promote inequality,” she said. “It’s up to scientists to make sure that the message of those studies is not conveyed in a comparative way that adds any value. It doesn’t have to be a competition, it’s not about being better, it’s just about saying this is how things works.

“There’s nothing anti-feminist about saying the neurobiology in the female brain might be different.”

 

Source: The Guardian

World Congress for Freedom of Scientific Research in Addis Ababa

World Congress for Freedom of Scientific Research in Addis Ababa

Our coordinators Marco Perduca and Marco Cappato just came back from Addis Ababa, where they visited different institutions and met with local partners, in view of organising the 6th World Congress for Freedom of Scientific Research there in February 2020.

You can read the Presentation paper of the 6th meeting of WCFSR to find out why Science for Democracy decided to organise the next World Congress in Ethiopia and some of the themes that will be discussed.

 

Summary of our Crispr action

Summary of our Crispr action

After the Crispr snack of 5 March 2019, the Belgian Food Safety Authority questioned Science for Democracy’s coordinators Marco Cappato and Marco Perduca for over three hours. While there has been no notification of any sanction yet (criminal or administrative), the Agency has sent a recap file, which includes the first report, the list of confiscated material, the audition report and pictures of the event taken by agents in front of the European Parliament. Enjoy the reading (in French) and, should you wish to support Science for Democracy, here is how you can donate! Thank you!

Scientists use editing tool to identify key cancer genes

Scientists use editing tool to identify key cancer genes

Hopes of new treatments after research uncovers genes essential to disease’s survival

Researchers working with a revolutionary gene editing tool have discovered thousands of genes that are essential for the survival of cancer cells, holding out the prospect of major advances in treatment.

Scientists from the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridgeshire worked with the Crispr/Cas9 system to disrupt every gene within 30 different types of cancer.

This led them to identifying 600 genes that could be used in precision treatments that would mean sufferers not having to endure the side effects of options such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

One gene identified is Werner syndrome RecQ helicase, which researchers found was essential for keeping alive some of the most unstable cancers but which cannot currently be targeted.

The research, which was a collaboration between the Wellcome Sanger Institute, the European Bioinformatics Institute and the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, was published in the journal Nature on Wednesday.

It could help to bring down the cost of making effective cancer treatments: the institute said that it currently costs more than $1bn (£760m) to make a single drug, and that 90% of these fail during testing and development.

Praising the tool that made the breakthrough possible, Dr Kosuke Yusa, the co-lead author of the findings, said Crispr was “incredibly powerful” and “enables us to do science at a scale and with a precision that we couldn’t do five years ago.

“With Crispr we have discovered a very exciting opportunity to develop new drugs targeting cancers.”

Dr Mathew Garnett, also co-lead author, said: “The Cancer Dependency Map is a huge effort to identify all the weaknesses that exist in different cancers so we can use this information to empower the next generation of precision cancer treatments.

“Ultimately we hope this impacts on the way we treat patients, so many more patients get effective therapies.”

Prof Karen Vousden, Cancer Research UK’s chief scientist, told the BBC: “What makes this research so powerful is the scale.

“This work provides some excellent starting points and the next step will be a thorough analysis of the genes that have been identified as weaknesses in this study, to determine if they will one day lead to the development of new treatments for patients.”

 

Credit: The Guardian

Gene-edited foods are safe, Japanese panel concludes

Gene-edited foods are safe, Japanese panel concludes

Japan will allow gene-edited foodstuffs to be sold to consumers without safety evaluations as long as the techniques involved meet certain criteria, if recommendations agreed on by an advisory panel yesterday are adopted by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. This would open the door to using CRISPR and other techniques on plants and animals intended for human consumption in the country.

“There is little difference between traditional breeding methods and gene editing in terms of safety,” Hirohito Sone, an endocrinologist at Niigata University who chaired the expert panel, told NHK, Japan’s national public broadcaster.

How to regulate gene-edited food is a hotly debated issue internationally. Scientists and regulators have recognized a difference between genetic modification, which typically involves transferring a gene from one organism to another, and gene editing, in which certain genes within an organism are disabled or altered using new techniques such as CRISPR. That’s why a year ago, the U.S.Department of Agriculture concluded that most gene-edited foods would not need regulation. But the European Union’s Court of Justice ruled in July 2018 that gene-edited crops must go through the same lengthy approval process as traditional transgenic plants.

Now, Japan appears set to follow the U.S. example. The final report, approved yesterday, was not immediately available, but an earlier draft was posted on the ministry website. The report says no safety screening should be required provided the techniques used do not leave foreign genes or parts of genes in the target organism. In light of that objective, the panel concluded it would be reasonable to require information on the editing technique, the genes targeted for modification, and other details from developers or users that would be made public while respecting proprietary information.

The recommendations leave open the possibility of requiring safety evaluations if there are insufficient details on the editing technique. The draft report does not directly tackle the issue of whether such foods should be labeled. The ministry is expected to largely follow the recommendations in finalizing a policy on gene-edited foods later this year.

Consumer groups had voiced opposition to the draft recommendations, which were released for public comment in December 2018. Using the slogan “No need for genetically modified food!” the Consumers Union of Japan joined other groups circulating a petition calling for regulating the cultivation of all gene-edited crops, and safety reviews and labeling of all gene-edited foods.

Whether consumers will embrace the new technology remains to be seen. Japan has approved the sale of genetically modified (GM) foods that have passed safety tests as long as they are labeled. But public wariness has limited consumption and has led most Japanese farmers to shun GM crops. The country does import sizable volumes of GM processed food and livestock feed, however. Japanese researchers are reportedly working on gene-edited potatoes, tomatoes, rice, chicken, and fish. “Thorough explanations [of the new technologies] are needed to ease public concerns,” Sone said.

 

Credit: Science Magazine

 

Commissioner Andriukaitis responds to our CRISPR snack

Commissioner Andriukaitis responds to our CRISPR snack

Read the European Commission’s Response

Further to our March 5th CRISPR snack, the Director for food and feed safety, innovation in the Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety of the European Commission, Sabine Jülicher, responded to Science for Democracy with a letter, on behalf of Commissioner Andriukaitis. In it, the European Commission restates that enforcement of regulation is a national competence, but acknowledges the importance of stakeholder engagement and thanks Science for Democracy for informing the Commissioner about our initiatives.

 

What was asked on the 5 March CRISPR snack

What was asked on the 5 March CRISPR snack

On 5 March 2019, Marco Cappato, treasurer of the Luca Coscioni Association and Marco Perduca, coordinator of Science for Democracy, organized a demonstration in front of the European Parliament in Brussels to denounce the serious repercussions in terms of limitation to scientific research of a judgment of the European Court of Justice adopted on 25 July 2018.

In conclusion of the public event participants ate some home-made rice pudding prepared with genetically edited rice with the CRISPR technique. During the snack the Belgian authorities confiscated the rice, identifying Marco Cappato and Marco Perduca and summoning them on 2 April to justify their actions and explain the origin of the rice.

On 2 April 2019, Perduca and Cappato, accompanied by Guido Long, were heard for almost three hours by officials of the Federal Agency for Food Chain Security.

 

Below what was asked to Mr. Perduca

 

Marco PERDUCA declares to act on behalf of the non-profit association “Science for Democracy” as an administrator, is present without having received a written convocation with a list of rights and is asked questions in the presence of Mr. CAPPATO.

Questions are asked on the following:

  1. Distribution of food products manufactured from unauthorized GMO rice;
  2. non-respect of the seizure of the aforementioned food product.

Agency inspectors inform Mr. PERDUCA:

1 – that he has the right, prior to interrogation, to consult with a lawyer of his choice or with a lawyer assigned to him, and who has the possibility of being assisted by him during the interrogation; that he must take the necessary measures himself to be assisted by a lawyer and that he can request to have the hearing postponed only once for this purpose;

2- that he has the possibility, after having identified himself, to make a declaration, to answer the questions that will be addressed to him or to remain silent;

3- that he cannot be forced to accuse himself;

4- that his statements can be used as evidence by justice and can therefore be used against him or against another person;

5- that he can request that all questions that are addressed to him as well as the answers are listed in the terms used;

6 – that he is not deprived of freedom and that he can come and go as he wishes;

7- that he may request to be subjected to certain information acts or hearings;

8- that he can use the documents in his possession, without this causing the postponement of the interrogation and that he can, during the interrogation or subsequently, request that they be attached to the report or file;

9- that he can obtain a copy of the interrogation report free of charge.

Mr. PERDUCA is given a written declaration of his rights to the interested party before the first interrogation.

Mr. PERDUCA declares to renounce his right to a preliminary consultation with a lawyer and to be assisted by him during the audition. The interested party signs a waiver form dated and attached to the hearing report.

The questioned person lets us know that he wants to express himself in French and that he chooses French as the language of justice.

 

Audition:

 

I come today to your offices according to your desire to proceed with my questioning as part of your check of 5 March 2019 made in front of the European Parliament at the Place du Luxembourg in Ixelles on the occasion of our event “Give CRISPR a chance”.

You ask me if our ASBL pays its members. I answer you no.

You ask me how many members our ASBL has. I can’t tell you a precise number. I would say about fifty members of which only a part was present at our event. Our members come from all horizons including non-EU countries.

You ask me what is the calendar of our events. I answer you that our event of March 5 was aimed at keeping the public and MEPs informed about the decision of the Luxembourg Court of July 25, 2018, and to explain what CRISPR is as a new technology. In the past, we organized a picnic in Rome on 17 September 2018 in front of the parliament and on 4 October in front of the university in Milan. On 8 October 2018 we organized a debate on the right to science at the United Nations in Geneva. On March 21, 2019 we held a debate on human rights and scientific research on drugs in Vienna. On March 19, 2019, a debate on biotechnology in agriculture in the Senate in Rome. On February 20 we organized a debate on science and innovation in Italy in Rome. We have sent a series of recommendations to the United Nations following these debates. All our past events are listed on our website www.sciencefordemocracy.org on the “when” page. On 8 April we have a seminar on environmental policy assessment in London. On 5 July we will organize a debate in Rome on the critical aspects of science and research in Italy. A debate on science is planned for October in Geneva. In 2020, an international congress in Ethiopia. We have not received any restriction regarding our events, nor during the picnics organized in Italy. Members of parliament are partners in our projects. You ask me if we have an upcoming event about CRISPR and I answer no.

You ask me why we do not consider the CRISPR method as a scientific method assimilated to a genetic modification. The answer is simple: because this does not correspond to the contents of the 2001 Directive. In particular, these are genetic modifications invented in 2012 that are not distinguishable from a natural modification. GMOs are modifications of a whole series of genes. The CRISPR-cas method cuts the DNA sequence without any introduction of genome from other species. CRISPR allows us to decide when genome modification will take place instead of depending on chance as it happens in nature.

You ask me if we know the role of the AFSCA. I answer you that before your action I did not know the AFSCA. You inform me that the AFSCA is based on established regulation.

We want to give scientists the chance to do their job. You ask me why we organized this event in front of Parliament. I reply that it is the European Parliament that must change the European Directive of 2001. Why have you associated the distribution of genetically modified rice with the public during your awareness-raising event? I reply that it is a question of trust in the products we and scientists defend. We would like to clarify that we do not agree with the notion of placing on the market because our militants wore a specific t-shirt with the words “Give CRISPR a chance”. This visual differentiation was useful for us to direct the distribution only towards our sympathizers. Our supporters are not all members who paid the registration fees but appear on our mailing list when we organize events. We also want to clarify that we dispute the genetically modified nature of the proposed rice because it is currently impossible to technologically determine that genetic modifications are the result of human intervention rather than a natural mechanism. The CRISPR method is not an expansive modification of the genome.

We did not respond favourably to your injunction not to distribute the product because it was important for us to emphasize our confidence in technology by making our sympathizers taste the product and consuming it ourselves. As for rice, you ask me where the preparation was made. I answer you that the preparation of the rice was made by us at the residence of some friends. I do not wish to give you the address of this kitchen.

You ask me where the rice that was part of the preparation comes from. I reply that we asked for this modified CRISPR rice in Italy to a scientist whose name I will not give. In Japan there is more advanced research on CRISPR-cas on rice. That is where the rice was produced. I cannot tell you what status CRISPR-cas rice has in Japan. Rice arrives by plane from Japan to Rome. I import the rice myself as a physical person. My offices were in Rome at Via di Torre Argentina 76, 00186. I worked there as a consultant in the field of human rights.

You ask me if any derogation application has been introduced. We do not know the conditions that would allow us to consider such a situation. About two years ago, before creating our ASBL, we were already interested in the CRISPR-cas method.

The hearing took place in accordance with the questions and answers, according to the terms used.

We read the hearing report to the interviewee, after which he confirmed he did not want to add or modify anything.

The interviewee received a copy of his hearing and signature below for receipt.

The hearing ends on 2 April 2019 at 3.35pm.

 

Thanks to Guido Long for the translation from French.