A new GeneWatch UK report concludes that billions of pounds of taxpayers' money have been wasted in R&D investments intended to deliver a new biotech economy (1).
Responding to this week's report on science funding by the Science and Technology Committee of MPs (2), GeneWatch's Director Dr Helen Wallace said: "The big problem with the science budget is not its total size but that the wrong people are deciding how to spend it. A cycle of hype is driving research investment decisions, which have become disconnected from reality."
The MPs' Committee is also due to issue a report this week (midday Thursday) on bioengineering (including genetic modification, GM).
The new GeneWatch report questions whether current investments in the biosciences, including genetic modification (GM) of plants, and human genome sequencing, can actually deliver the claimed future benefits to quality of life and the economy. It finds that, after decades of investment, the net value of the bio-economy worldwide has been estimated to be zero or negative.
Only two types of GM crops have been commercialised on any scale - insect-resistance and herbicide-tolerance - and only the US company Monsanto has made significant profits from them. A new generation of nitrogen-fixing and salt-tolerant GM crops were promised nearly 30 years ago: many scientists are sceptical that such products can be delivered and even enthusiasts predict that several decades more investment would be needed before any prospect of delivery.
There is widespread recognition amongst geneticists that most diseases in most people, and many adverse drug reactions, are too complex and too dependent on environmental factors to be predictable by screening people's genes. Yet, significant investments of taxpayers' money continue to be made with a view to integrating scans of people's genomes into electronic medical records. Money wasted includes substantial sums in R&D investments, plus over 12 billion pounds allocated to implementing the UK centralised system of electronic medical records known as the 'Spine', with the aim of implementing a 'genetic revolution' in healthcare. Despite massive publicity, commercial companies have failed to sell more than a few tens of thousands of commercial human gene tests, because they are not useful to predict most diseases in most people (3).
"The Government and the European Union have wasted billions of taxpayers' money on a science fantasy", said Dr Wallace, "From the outset, the vision of a biotech economy failed to acknowledge the complexity of health, biology, society, the environment and agriculture".
The report documents how research investment decisions have been taken by a small circle of unaccountable advisors, including the New Labour donors known as the 'biotech barons'. Alternative 'on-the-ground' approaches to improving health and farming have been side-lined, starved of funding, or even axed altogether, leading to significant opportunity costs due to the failure to implement existing knowledge and best practice in areas such as public health and farmland management.
"The biotech barons and their friends deserve a prize for sleaze that goes way beyond the rest of politics", said Dr Wallace, "It is time to stop unaccountable advisors from pushing pseudo-scientific claims about the future of the biotech economy".
Diversion of potential food crops and land to industrial-scale production of biofuels (agrofuels) has long been proposed as part of the bio-economy: warnings about the effect on food prices and supplies made a decade ago have been ignored, and subsidised biofuel production - much of it using GM maize planted in North and South America - was one contributing factor in the 2008 food crisis. Developing new genetically modified micro-organisms (GMMs) to break down cellulose in woody plants to make ethanol, has been proposed as a potential future solution for the current problems caused by the diversion of food and land into growing agrofuels. However, this is unlikely to be technically feasible or cost-effective and will create new problems of its own if GMMs escape and survive in the environment.
The GeneWatch report concludes that science does have an important role to play in society and in the economy. However, there is an urgent need to re-assess what has been delivered by the major political and financial investments made in the bio-economy over the past three decades, and to reform the current decision-making systems for R&D investments. Scarce resources must be allocated more effectively.
For more information contact:
Dr Helen Wallace, Office: 01298-24300; Mobile: 07903-311584.
Notes for Editors:
(1) GeneWatch UK report: Bioscience for Life? Who decides what research is done in health and agriculture? March 2010. Available on: www.genewatch.org/uploads/f03c6d66a9b354535738483c1c3d49e4/Science_for_Life_final.doc . Appendix A: 'The history of UK Biobank, electronic medical records in the NHS, and the proposal for data-sharing without consent' was published online in February 2009. Available on: http://www.genewatch.org/uploads/f03c6d66a9b354535738483c1c3d49e4/UK_Biobank_fin_1.pdf
(2) House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. Science cuts threaten economic recovery, warn MPs. 23rd March 2010. Available on: http://www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/science_technology/s_t_pn29_100323.cfm