Swiss risk losing role

June 5, 1998

This weekend the Swiss vote on whether to tighten their already strict laws on genetic research. Jakob Nuesch argues that a 'yes' vote would imperil the country's research base.

Some months ago a report in the journal Science on the "Scientific Wealth of Nations" showed, once again, that Switzerland is ranked among the top ten nations as far as science, medicine and engineering are concerned. In molecular biology, immunology and chemistry the country ranks as either number one or two. Does this suggest that science and technology are very popular in Switzerland? Unfortunately not.

In 1986 a fire in a chemical warehouse in Schweizerhalle near Basle led to pollution of the Rhine. This spawned a popular environmental movement that has now got gene technology in its sights. Since the late 1980s, this movement has argued against allowing either research into genetic engineering or its application. From Basle, where a group against nuclear power was already active, the protest spread throughout German-speaking Switzerland (though it did not garner much support in the French-speaking part of the country). It grew in popularity even though Switzerland set up a safety committee to monitor research into the new technology of genetic engineering as long ago as 1975 and even though guidelines about the technology's use have been accepted voluntarily by industry and universities. All these measures did not, however, suffice to convince the protest movement that its arguments were redundant.

Swiss legislation governing the protection of animals is among the most restrictive in the world. In 1992, Swiss citizens voted to add a clause to the country's constitution requiring government and parliament to legislate against abuses of gene technology where these threatened the protection of humans and their environment. Both the deliberate modification of the human germ-line and the cloning of humans were forbidden. The government must, moreover, set rules regulating the handling of genetic material of non-human organisms. It also has to take into account the dignity of every creature as well as the safety of humans, animals and the environment. The relevant legislation, called Gen-Lex, is already far advanced.

Notwithstanding this well designed legal framework a new initiative, the Gene Protection Initiative was launched in 1992; in October 1994 it was submitted to parliament supported by 111,063 signatures. This weekend the Swiss public will vote in a referendum on whether to make it law. Some 70 organisations, among them animal protection, medical, environmental, agricultural, consumer, third world, political and religious organisations, are in favour of the initiative. Amazingly enough, the committee of the Swiss social-democratic party has also decided to support it, although it has been rejected by the committees of all other major political parties. This weekend the Swiss public will vote on whether or not the initiative should become law.

If the referendum is carried then the following activities will be forbidden: The production and acquisition of transgenic (genetically modified) animals

The deliberate release of transgenic organisms into the environment

The granting of patents for transgenic animals and plants as well as for parts thereof and for processes and products derived from them

In addition, under the initiative, research projects in the field of genetic engineering will require official approval. The applicant will have to prove that the project is both useful and safe, that there are no alternatives and that the proposed research is ethically responsible.

If the initiative is approved this weekend, there will be far-reaching consequences for scientists as well as for the pharmaceutical, agro and food industries. Not only will research in molecular biology and medicine be deprived of important tools and the industries dependent on transgenic animals driven out of Switzerland; research in plant genetics, including the modern seed industry, could be killed off.

From a cultural point of view, acceptance of the initiative would set a precedent for a paradigm change in science policy. Knowledge-oriented research would become impossible because the applicant for a research project would have to prove its usefulness. In addition, the initiative attempts to significantly narrow the freedom of research by handing decisions on future research directions to a political, non-research-minded constituency.

The reasons motivating the supporters of this initiative are manifold and ambiguous. On the one hand, there is a fear that the transfer of genes from one species to another one might have disastrous ecological consequences. On the other hand, there is a belief that the technical manipulation of the genome of any kind of organism insults that organism's inherent dignity. Small farmers as well as so-called organic farmers and religious groups (creationists) are among the initiative's supporters. Those eager for a different political system, people with a deep distrust in our modern civilisation, are also behind it. Such people fear the instrumentalisation of nature; they demonstrate against globalisation, the modern world's overemphasis on purely economic values and unemployment. In other words, the initiative stands in as a scapegoat for widespread dissatisfaction with the late 20th century.

While parliament, government and the majority of the political parties recommend a rejection of the initiative, it has found a lot of sympathy among the Swiss public. Most scientists have also taken a stand against it. Never before have so many information campaigns, open door events and demonstrations in favour of research been seen. Yet the opposition is also well organised and their arguments are based on fear.

It is likely that the initiative will be defeated, but even before the outcome of this weekend's vote is known one lesson has already emerged: citizens of a highly complex society ought to be aware of the basics of scientific and technological developments. New ways of partnership between the different constituencies of modern society have to be found in order to ensure that each trusts the other. If this initiative becomes a starting point for a cultural and political change at the threshold of the 21st century, Switzerland might have gained something from it.

Jakob Nuesch is president emeritus of the Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich.

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