© Inra/ Olivier Lemaire
The Colmar Court of Appeal has indeed just acquitted 54 individuals, “the reapers,” who in 2010 destroyed a scientific field trial employing genetically modified grapevine root stocks, the objective of which had been to study the mechanisms of resistance to a viral disease that is widespread among our vineyards, and to study the potential impacts of this genetic modification on the environment. This research trial, which had been created in partnership with the greater public in an exemplary fashion, and had been the subject over 200 public meetings, was not intended for commercial purposes. Furthermore, it involved studies that are subject to tightly regulated authorisation procedures and experimental methods, which had been scrupulously followed by INRA.
Apart from the public controversy regarding genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the reactions it has aroused, this court ruling is singular in that it was the first to be made in relation to the destruction of a trial conducted by the public research service since the law introduced more severe penalties for the defacement of plots of land intended for the generation of scientific knowledge, distinguishing them from plots intended for commercial cultivation of GMOs.
Since this ruling by the Colmar Court of Appeal, and even more so if the ruling is upheld in the event, as we hope, it is appealed to a higher court, the legal protection of research facilities for conducting experiments under controlled conditions is therefore no longer guaranteed. However, trials such as that carried out by INRA in Colmar are the only way of obtaining documented and reliable evidence on the reality of the effects GMOs may have on humans, animals and the environment. Their destruction by individuals who fail to respect democratic standards effectively prevents researchers from carrying out their role in serving the common good. Faced with this threat, must researchers henceforth collectively abandon experimentation in socially contentious areas because they are controversial?
As heads of public research bodies and universities, we earnestly wish to draw the attention of our fellow-citizens to the implications of such as situation. We are responsible researchers with strong awareness of the legitimate public debates stimulated by some technologies on account of their use or usefulness, and we know that it is not for us to resolve them. We also know that our fellow citizens have higher expectations than ever from the contribution science can make to meet important challenges, especially in the prevention of major environmental and public health risks. In this context, must we abandon all hope of carrying out controlled experiments on technological innovations that may provide some of the solutions required, where these are essential to assess their impact on the associated risks, in order to enable us to collectively make informed choices that go beyond the fears that they may generate? Whatever the subsequent decisions, this is also the necessary condition for maintaining independent public expertise, capable of assessing problems, providing objective opinions on request from public authorities, and enlightening public debate. Must we henceforth resign ourselves to being unable to place our knowledge at the service of collective decision-making?
Abandoning experimentation thus means refusing to act to improve our common future. Yet this is what may happen if we do not leave this attitude of fear and withdrawal induced by this ruling, where the determination of a few individuals jeopardises the ability of all to confront these complex challenges democratically and rationally. We are calling for a clarification of the interpretation of the legal and regulatory framework surrounding experimentation to enable us to continue to fulfil our public research role for the common good in a legally secure environment.
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