Freedom of Research in Plant Biotechnology?
“What future does Germany have as a research location for impending technologies?” asked numerous scientists, in January when BASF announced they would relocate their plant biotechnology division abroad. One of the key technologies of the 21st century doesn’t meet with the necessary acceptance in Germany. What consequences will this have for university research? To learn more, we spoke to Hans-Jörg Jacobsen, Professor of Plant Biotechnology at Leibniz University in Hannover.
Prof. Jacobsen, Industrial research into plant biotechnology has withdrawn almost completely from Germany. What is the research situation currently like at universities?
Jacobsen: Green gene technology has not yet completely disappeared in Germany. At several universities and research facilities, and also in company laboratories, it is still being pursued. The question is “For how long?” Because increasingly, university research scientists are no longer conducting the decisive field experiments in Germany, but in North America.
What is the reason for this?
Jacobsen: The political situation surrounding plant biotechnology has worsened in the last few years and is making research activities difficult for universities and scientific institutions. The obstacles researchers are facing range from field destructions that sweep away years of valuable research activity, to coalition agreements between red and green politicians which indicate that there will be no state level sponsorship of plant biotechnology and fear-inducing news by various media and NGOs which could eventually fund their campaigns. This development began a long time ago. As a result, a fear of an allegedly uncontrollable biotechnology has taken root in the public’s minds. Reports such as the official confirmation of the EU Commission that biotechnology and particularly GMOs1 do not involve more risks than conventional methods of plant breeding are ignored.
How does this development affect your work as a professor at a German university?
Jacobsen: When you work in a German Federal State like Baden-Württemberg in which plant biotechnology research is not politically welcome and is not sponsored with state funding because of a coalition agreement, a conflict of conscience can arise. I ask myself “How far do these agreements encroach upon the research activities? Is a scientist paid with public money allowed to research a politically undesired topic using third-party funding? Is he or she allowed to use his basic equipment financed by the Federal State of Baden-Württemberg for such a project? Is he or she permitted to think about plant biotechnology projects during the working hours bankrolled by the state, or should he be researching organic farming?” I think this already constitutes a restriction on the freedom of research2, even though officially politicians have elegantly circumvented violating Article 5 of the Federal Constitutional.
What does the emigration of research in plant biotechnology mean for Germany?
Jacobsen: Plant biotechnology is of major global social significance. The world population is growing, the number of starving people is increasing, the climate is changing and the demand for alternative renewable forms of energy is rising. Plant biotechnology can contribute to providing solutions for all these trends. But this means that we need continued top quality research. If the opportunity to pursue this research in Germany is removed, research will have to be completed abroad. This research outsourcing process is already in full swing. Unlike many other disciplines, the results cannot be retrieved easily because field research in plant biotechnology is conducted in areas with different climatic conditions than in Europe; specific to the region where the research is conducted. Therefore, promising opportunities are being missed, although the discoveries and developments have their origin in this country.
How do you personally intend to continue with your research?
Jacobsen: At the moment, we are meeting in Canada, where we have field trials in progress. I encounter a very open climate of opinion here, our work is welcomed, and I have constructive colleagues at the universities. What more could one want?
1 genetically modified organism
2 Article 5 Basic Constitutional law "Art and science, research and teaching are free".