Warning: this thing isn't natural: When scientists experiment on their doorsteps, people deserve answers, says Susan Watts

Click to follow
WHAT do a cabbage patch in Oxfordshire and a strawberry patch in California have in common? Both are critical to the fate of one of the century's most promising new industries - biotechnology.

Both are sites where organisms created artificially in laboratories have been let out into the open air. Both have stirred controversy and become the focus of intense media interest. The Oxford experiment was due to go ahead this week, but it was put on hold yesterday, and will not proceed until its safety has been reassessed.

The experiments involve life forms that could not have evolved naturally. In the Oxford case this is a virus, intended to act as an insecticide by killing caterpillars on cabbage plants. The virus has extra genetic material, taken from the scorpion, which produces powerful nerve poisons. These paralyse the caterpillars, stopping them from eating the plants while the lethal components of the virus do their work.

The Californian experiment, in the late Eighties, involved 'ice minus' bacteria, designed to help plants to resist frost. Naturally, these bacteria produce a protein on plant leaves around which ice crystals will form. Scientists created a version of the bacteria without the gene that produces this protein. Temperatures must fall much lower than normal before plants sprayed with the modified bacteria suffer frost damage.

The Californian test prompted furious reaction from environmentalists, who accused Advanced Genetic Sciences, the company involved, of ecological roulette. Too little was known of the effect on the natural environment of these altered bacteria for the experiment to proceed, they said.

The company had not expected its work to inflame the public. Protesters ripped up the test plants, the experiment was delayed and even today some analysts maintain that the furore scared off potential investors in biotechnology and threatened to kill off the fledgling industry for good.

Others learnt a valuable lesson. American biotechnology companies now consult widely very early on when planning genetic tests outside the laboratory. They invite government scientists to help to design the experiments and to ensure they are safe. They hold public meetings for local residents, and all this is budgeted for as an integral part of research programmes.

In Britain, however, lessons that should have been learnt from the Californian test appear to have been forgotten. According to Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College London, scientists adopt a complacent 'nanny knows best' approach to public fears over science. David Bishop, who heads the team of government scientists conducting the Oxford field trial, has been exceptional for his appreciation of the need to talk to lay people about his work. Something went very badly wrong over his latest experiment in Oxford.

Bureaucratic bungling at the Department of the Environment has not helped. Unaccountably, a whole series of questions raised by eminent scientists were not considered by the Government's safety advisers before they gave the go-ahead for the test.

The objectors question the rigour of the risk assessment sent by the Oxford team to the department's scientists. They claim that the virus involved is more promiscuous than the experimenters suggest, raising the possibility of it passing on its extra scorpion toxin gene to other wild viruses. There is a risk that it could infect species other than the caterpillars, they believe. Safeguards against the virus and infected caterpillars escaping are inadequate, they contend.

The validity of these concerns is a matter for open and full scientific debate, but the objectors are angry that the department did not tell them they had only a tight timetable in which to lodge their complaints. Detailed information on the experiment was sent to the objectors on the day that it was approved.

The experiment was deemed to require less detailed scrutiny than usual because it was the latest in a series of related experiments. It was therefore passed as safe more quickly than normal. 'Fast tracking' genetic experiments in this way will become more common as scientific experience grows. So it is vital that the department makes clear to the public not only why experiments are chosen as safe enough to be put on a fast track, but the exact limit on the timetable for objectors to make their case.

Leigh Day & Co, a London firm of solicitors famous for taking on controversial medical and environmental causes, is preparing legal action aimed at stopping the Oxford trial. They contend that the department's public consultation procedures broke down and want the process tightened.

As things stand, the Government is under no legal obligation to inform the public about such experiments. Nevertheless, it has taken the view that this is sensible, and advises scientists at very least to notify the public of their work in a local paper.

The Oxford scientists did this, although their notice about the site suggested it was further away from Oxford's Wytham Woods - an acknowledged ecological treasure trove - than it is. The notice also invites the public to seek information from the department, but there seems little point in inviting participation if people's views can have no material effect on decisions. The objecting scientists want a year's delay, arguing that this can cause no harm.

Britain has a good reputation for its cautious approach to such genetic tests. It has also gained some ground as having recognised early on the need to respect the right of ordinary people to question the work of scientists - and to expect answers. Civil servants and scientists must not lose sight of this now.

(Photograph omitted)