Gene-drive e-mails were legally requested

ETC Group, Montreal, Canada.

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Gene-drive technology does indeed need proper scrutiny, but it also needs transparent and accountable governance (see Nature 552, 6; 2017). In my view, your Editorial seems to be trying to excuse the influence of big-money manipulations on scientific decision-making when it comes to this risky technology. In so doing, I feel that Nature has crossed a line in conflating a cornerstone of investigative journalism — requests under freedom-of-information laws — with outright theft.

Specifically, you write that the release of 1,200 e-mails from gene-drive researchers (obtained by Edward Hammond under US open-records laws) “echoes the way in which hackers released documents stolen from climate scientists before a major UN meeting in 2009”. The two incidents are very different. Those ‘Climategate’ e-mails were taken illegally. These e-mails, dubbed the Gene Drive Files, were released by the institutions involved in accordance with legal requirements. There is nothing criminal about this.

Furthermore, climate deniers used the Climategate e-mails to claim that data had been falsified. Scientists robustly and correctly responded through independent inquiries that this was incorrect. By contrast, the Gene Drive Files concern issues of process: they corroborate how the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington, paid US$1.6 million to a private public-relations firm, apparently with the intention of influencing the United Nations discussion on gene drives by coordinating what an ‘advocacy coalition’ of public researchers should say in an expert process. Nature failed to provide the details but readers can make up their own minds.

Employment as a researcher at a publicly funded institution is an immense privilege. Such researchers are rightly accountable to the public — not to private public-relations firms or big-money agendas. Accountability is exactly why we have freedom-of-information laws. Undermining those laws undermines a free press.

Nature 553, 155 (2017)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-017-08827-9
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Competing Financial Interests

J.T. is employed as executive director of The ETC Group, a non-profit civil-society organization that supports a moratorium on the release of synthetic gene drives.