Saturday, February 18, 2006

Questionable University Funding Criteria for Genetically Modified Food Research

I recommend Andrew Pollack's recent New York Times article for those looking for a concise explanation of the considerable hurdles precluding research in genetically engineered foods.

Interestingly, it appears that university research into genetically engineered crops (e.g. tomatoes rich in lycopene, a caretenoid believed to have cancer-fighting properties) is facing a lack of funding. This development is significant, as genetically engineered foods are hailed by many members of the scientific community as a potential solution to the developing world’s disease burden. Some suggest that university funding cuts are fueled largely by the fact that genetically modified foods are not often brought to market due to the social stigmas attached to the crops.

We ought to be worried if, indeed, it is true that market predictions and social stigmas are dictating university research funding. If market predictions are influencing the decisions of funding committees, then this represents yet another instance of economic interests moving science away from the objective principles we expect of a public institution. Decisions influenced by social stigmas, conversely, may appear acceptable, as they involve consideration of public interests (after all, science ought to be a public institution). However, it is dangerous to allow for public fears regarding the potential harms of genetically engineered foods to preclude objective scientific research aimed at producing safe crops. To do so would be to allow for the current shortcomings of our technologies to preclude any efforts at improving these technologies.

Universities should continue to fund research into new methods of engineering safe and effective foods, with the understanding that the end result of research may not be perfect. However, the information gained through such research may be useful for the future production of safe, effective foods. Assuming that genetic engineering research itself can be conducted in a safe manner (and there is little reason to suggest that safe, contained experiments cannot be conducted), the research ought to be pursued.

The University serves as one of the final arenas for the pursuit of truly public science. In the case of genetically engineered food research, this is precisely the brand of science we need most. Indeed, we may find that university research will serve as the main avenue through which social stigmas regarding genetically engineered foods are refuted.


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