Experiments outside the laboratory: Who should decide? (notes)

These are the notes from an event at UCL on 1st July 2019 part of Scaling (H2020 project) – innovations in Living Labs. The chair was Jack Stilgoe  – Associate Professor, Science and Technology Studies, University College London. The second part of it emerged from Tom Wakefield at the ETC group which is looking at early stages of technology development and hold groups into account. The ETC group is interested in technology that will profoundly change the relationships of the public with experiments. The object of interest for ETC is ecosystems themselves and having unintended consequences. Consent and legitimacy are at the centre, with GM mosquitos modified to address malaria through gene drive.

We look at a film that is addressing gene drive (above) – in particular, the proposed testing of gene drive mosquitoes and the upcoming release of genetically modified mosquitoes by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Target Malaria project in Burkina Faso. The film “a question of consent – about Burkina Faso experiments with mosquitos in Target Malaria experiment with a gene drive with to eradicate the mosquito through gene transformation. There was permission to release GMO mosquitos to the wild. There is an experience with the failure of GMO cotton. Target Malaria is stating that they work with the local agency and care about the health and environmental consent. People ask questions about what will come after the eradication – which insects will thrive and what will they do?  Local people are stating that they are not informed or that consent was asked from them. People are not aware that the project is the first gene drive example in the world.

Zahra Moloo – independent researcher and director of the film “A Question of Consent: Exterminator Mosquitoes in Burkina Faso”. The background to the film – the issue has been in the media for a while, and she’s working for the ETC group and therefore the context is as a journalist and as part of the group, trying to see what people at Burkina Faso to know what the local people know. Most journalists were taken to the place with the project people. They went in October 2018, and there was also a GMO demonstration – on the ground, there are people who are telling a different story. Today, some GMO drive mosquitos will be released and they say that they obtained consent in the village Bana and the film shows that this is not the case. The release today is GMO male mosquitos, but not gene drive. There are open issues of consent and who should decide.

Lim Li Ching – Senior Researcher, Third World Network. The first point is that it is not only about gene drive, but many other examples of application – e.g. using GMO viruses to crop and other mechanisms, can lead to unexpected biodiversity impacts. Gene drive is deliberate ways to influence wild populations and eradicate species potentially. It’s a new power of humans. This raises legal and moral questions for society. Who should decide and choose which species are expandable and can be removed? The international community – the parties of the treaty on biodiversity decided that any environmental releases that can impact local communities and indigenous people, then a free, prior and informed consent is required. It’s a very involved process – the FPIC process is based on rights for self-determination – the right to be consulted, the right to participation, and the right for land and resources. That is based on the rights of indigenous people. Need to respect the decision making the process of the processes. The process has been integrated into any intervention that influences indigenous people, their environment, and resources. The process of consultation is as important as achieving FPIC. There are many examples of not carrying out the process properly. There is also the right of redress – who is allowed to do it? It’s a serious exercise and project proponents should demonstrate.

Brice Laurent – Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation, ParisTech (formerly Paris School of Mines). The example is an extreme example of carrying out a policy through experiments – a version of evidence-based policy, being responsible with public money. Experiments are presented as collaborative and participatory. The example is not to take it for granted, and to consider how to make policy decisions through experiments – e.g. RCTs that are a basis for policy. In contrast, the experiments of electric scooters in cities, which are released as something new to test the regulatory framework. it is important to test collective decisions through these experiments. The problem: the boundary is not clear when people are entities that collect data but don’t know that they are collecting data for companies and experiments with technologies. The second reasons not to take for granted is about the expected benefits – e-scooters: the investors are the one that will benefit, this is an economy that provides the investor. So who benefits from the experiment? Who benefits? Most autonomous cars experiments can be about other things – e.g. using sensors in order to learn about them and use them in another context. It’s not clear who should be impacted. With experiments – it is another political philosophy about the rule of the state, when we do intentional irreversibility we restrict political choices in the future. Politics of acceptance – how to create new testing grounds, changing regulatory frameworks.

Lim/Zahra – in some cases, specific consent of the individual is not possible. It depends on consent. It should be a process of dialogue and not just a simple consent for one activity. Consent is not a yes/no. Need to think who push the study and why. Some people from the Target Malaria who were invited to public debate didn’t come. Do you know where the money comes from? Are there alternatives?

Brice – consent is thought as a single person and as a one-time event, and it doesn’t consider groups and communities.  How to identify the communities and who should be involved?

Q: experiments in the open – how do identify when it is an experiment? In many cases, we have a need to define when an action is an experiment? Another question is what constitutes the information that should be shared? Who should be consulted and how to decide how to include the difficulties of making these decisions? The gene drive is argued to be a way to open up acceptance to GMO.

Answers: Brice – the history of things being released over time, but there is a contemporary consent of conducting test and experiments, changing regulatory rules and seeing what they lead to. For example, creating sandboxes where removing constraints to allow people to experiments. There is colonial and postcolonial involvement. Li – there are moving from lab to the field, and the power of this technology, and the large scale ecosystem engineering. We don’t see the use of precautionary principles, and a tendency of technologies to move fast and a rush to use the technology. The race to innovate become a justification all by itself. People feel that that they haven’t been involved – more stakeholders engagement then consent.

There is something new, but we need to consider a collective consent – we rely on representatives to provide consent, but maybe we should ask which consent and which experiments we should allow? What is the role of government in it? The work needs to be done to get to the stage where people can ask for consent? What a trust-worthy process looks like? Incompetence and herd mentality are important factors to understand why things happen the way that they are going.

The opportunity to be innovative – we have existing agreements and we need to innovate around them and accept them and need to understand precaution when working with indigenous groups. When there isn’t a long tradition of consultation, especially with indigenous groups. Including more people in the decision-making process – we need to consider who needs to be included and who need to be convinced. If we want to apply the Precautionary Principle, we need to keep it in mind and make it operational.

NGOs and businesses – in terms of good/bad – GMO was supposed to feed the world, and what we get golden rice, which didn’t work too well. We can look at the power differentials between NGOs and corporate NGOs. There is an issue of accountability and NGOs.





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