Science and policy are generally considered two separate worlds but in a society like ours that relies on progress and scientific support so heavily, they are actually very connected.
Scientific research aims to understand things in order to make the world and life better for everyone. Unfortunately, because of the abuse or misuse of some scientific discoveries, it became necessary to regulate science. In principle I agree with the concept if it is based on scientific knowledge.
As a plant biotechnologist, I have been directly affected by political decisions many times and mostly in a negative way. At the very beginning of my scientific carrier, during my PhD studies, I experienced funding cuts for my project, which made finishing my studies quite challenging. The project was funded by a private company that was willing to invest in GMO research because of the potential benefits of these products. However, when certain countries within the EU decided to ban GMOs, the company had to discontinue the collaboration, as there was no longer the possibility of an application of the research project. People that work in academia know how important funding from the private sector is because of the constant decrease in public investments in research. If funding by the private sector stops because of logical financial implications, the research stops and the knowledge stops. The decision made by the EU strongly influenced many GMO studies, which in turn meant that the EU fell behind many countries that continued their studies.
I was lucky enough (and probably stubborn enough) to continue my carrier in the field of plant biotechnology. And I am now very excited to be involved in this new era of gene technology dictated by genome editing techniques. The scientific community is all united in recognising genome editing as a revolutionary technique, that in every field will bring improvements and successes. Plant biotech is not excluded: we are now able to induce genetic mutations in plants with extreme accuracy, thus eliminating those (unjustified and unscientific) concerns that made a monster of GMOs.
Unfortunately, again the EU’s decision in this matter was a great let down for all the scientists. They decided to consider, from a regulatory point of view, genome edited plants exactly like GMOs. Which goes against all the evidence that scientists have provided so far.
I’m currently working in South Africa on genome editing with CRISPR in different crops and the general aim of the projects is to help farmers to deal with climate change or climate change related issues. It will be extremely disappointing if such edited crops that can benefit farmers as well as the environment, and obviously consumers, cannot reach the market because of unscientific regulations.
In November 2018, I attended for the first time, the UN Biodiversity Conference of the Parties (COP14) in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. Every two years, the COP is hosted by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), a global agreement among 196 nations representing the global community’s commitment to the conservation of biological diversity, sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the uses of genetic resources. I honestly didn’t know about the existence of this conference before. I took part because I was kindly invited by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) AfriCenter as an expert for plant genome editing. I also didn’t know what happens at this type of meeting. I discovered that a lot of the scientist’s frustration comes from these meetings. It is the place where law makers decide about the future of our research. And it was sad to realise that scientists weren’t there. Like me, many others don’t know that there are conferences where we can participate and make a difference with our scientific contribution. I was very impressed by the NGOs like ISAAA that care and fight for science. They put in a lot of effort to get scientists to contribute to these global agreement events. It is important for scientists to know what they can do to contribute in political decisions that directly influence their work. And it is crucial that more scientists start to actively participate in these conferences and give their informed opinion on scientific matters.
In the case of genome editing for example, it is absolutely necessary that it doesn’t get boycotted for unjustified emotional reasons such as the case has been for GMOs. Scientists need to be present and to inform people, especially law makers and politicians. They need to be involved in the decision processes about science and research. We (scientists) must stop unscientific global science agreements. And the only way to do it is to be more vocal and to participate more in conferences like the COP, where we have the opportunity to talk to government representatives. For science, for people, for the environment, for Africa, and for the whole world.
Dr. Manuela Campa is a Post-Doctoral Research Scientist at the Genetics Department, Faculty of AgriSciences in Stellenbosch University. You can reach her on firstname.lastname@example.org