June 06, 2019

Driving Under the Influence

A review of the evidence for bias and conflict of interest in the IUCN report on synthetic biology and gene drive organisms
The first page of the report

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Executive Summary

In May 2019, the IUCN published an assessment of a highly controversial field of biotechnology: synthetic biology. In reviewing those involved with this report, evidence suggests a majority of the authors hold a pre-existing bias towards strongly supporting synthetic biology and gene drives in particular. In addition, many of them have conflicts of interest, not all of which were disclosed in their signed Conflict of Interest statements to IUCN.  The credibility of the resulting report, which advances a position strongly in favour of both synthetic biology and gene drive organisms, is rendered suspect due to the conflicts of interest, known biases of the authors and unbalanced constitution of the taskforce membership.

• In September 2016 the membership of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) passed a resolution requesting the organization undertake an assessment of the implications of the emerging field of synthetic biology and in particular controversial “gene drive” technologies while refraining from advocating for or supporting this technology.

• IUCN members might have made the reasonable assumption that the leadership of the IUCN would take a precautionary and even-handed approach to an assessment with such potentially far-reaching implications for biodiversity.

• Instead, the IUCN chose a different path, appointing a chair who is a well-known, enthusiastic advocate for the technology, Dr Kent Redford.

• Redford in turn appointed a cohort of individuals whose track record clearly points to them being likely to take a strongly positive view of “gene drive” technologies and other developments in synthetic biology.

This document analyses the group of authors and taskforce members that IUCN chose for its synthetic biology assessment. It examines evidence of pre-existing biases as well as factors that could be perceived as conflicts of interest. Key findings include:

• Of the approximately 40 individuals associated with the report, over half display evidence of pre-existing bias in favor of the technology and/or potential conflict of interest. By contrast, not a single member of the group shows evidence of a pre-existing leaning towards critical views of synthetic biology. The group authoring this report was thus extremely unbalanced.

• Three pro-synthetic biology interest groups appear to have had a disproportionate influence on the writing of this report: at least 15 members of the group appear to be associated with or employed by either Revive and Restore, Genetic Biocontrol of Invasive Rodents project (GBIRd) or Target Malaria. Those three organizations are among the world’s most prominent and well-funded proponents of the development and deployment of gene drive organisms for environmental release.

• Although the IUCN decision explicitly named collaborative documents and networks of civil society groups who monitor synthetic biology as among those who should be involved in the assessment, it appears that such networks were not invited to participate.

• Several members of the assessment group failed to disclose relevant factors that could be perceived as potential conflicts of interest. This includes chair Kent Redford, who failed to report past consulting and association with both Dupont and Revive and Restore.

• In 2017 about a dozen members of the group were implicated in a deliberate effort to covertly influence the UN Biodiversity Convention’s Online Open Forum on Synthetic Biology coordinated by Emerging Ag Inc. - a Public Relations company funded by and for agribusiness. This includes the chair Kent Redford, who gives the appearance of having actively followed instructions by the staff of that PR company on what to post (see Annex B)

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