Monday, June 10, 2002
Occasionally though, scientists drag politics into science by the heels, rather than the other way around. That's what's happening now, as a largely European movement urges a scientific boycott to punish Israel for its recent military actions against Palestinian cities in the West Bank. Academic boycotts, of course, are not new....
But some of the practices now emerging are quite different and deserve careful attention from the scientific community. In a case recently brought to Science's attention, an Israeli researcher asked an author of papers in two peer-reviewed journals to supply cells from a clone used in expression analyses. The author declined, citing her institution's protests against the recent Israeli military actions. It was a particularly ironic refusal, because the research being conducted by the group in Israel involves a collaboration with Palestinian scientists that is aimed quite directly at benefiting Palestinians.
The author's refusal is a clear violation of the policies in place at most journals and commonly understood in the scientific community. When authors submit a manuscript, they make a commitment to supply cells, special reagents, or other materials necessary for verification. They are not free to violate that commitment once their paper has been published....
After the Israeli scientist was refused the clone by the author, he contacted the editors of both journals in which the paper had appeared. One didn't reply; the other contacted the publisher, Ken Plaxton at Elsevier. Plaxton replied: "We do not have, nor wish to have, any influence on personal decisions made by contributors to our journals and cannot, I am afraid, in this instance help you further." That, it seems to us, is an inadequate response.
The refusenik's rationale has two parts. First it says, in effect, that the government of Israel has committed a morally repugnant act; part two asserts that this justifies the cancellation of an obligation to the entire scientific community. The first claim would be sure to stir up vigorous debate in most places; but we don't need to get into that, because the second part is so unimpressive. Its essential claim is that one's personal political convictions trump all other commitments and values. We've heard that before, and we don't buy it....
Science, believing that the consensus on this issue is firm, will continue to insist that authors have an obligation to share material--cell lines, knockout mice, reagents, etc.--with readers who request them, unless such transfers are prohibited by laws or regulations, such as those designed to deter bioterrorism. We will continue to intercede with authors who refuse: first with persuasion and then, if necessary, by imposing penalties relating to future publication.
Perhaps there are plausible excuses for failure to comply with the sharing requirement, like "We ran out," or "The dog ate my culture." But "We don't like your government" just won't do.
Yet that is just what the Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee has done:
"Farmers should have the right to plant genetically modified seed they have harvested from previous years' crops, even if the original seeds were covered by a patent, a blue-ribbon panel on biotechnology is advising the federal government."
Why? Because of what it calls a "farmer's privilege." According to the committee, the patent law should allow farmers to "save and sow plants from patented plants."
This will end up hurting those companies that develop genetically modified seed. But it will hurt consumers more, and it will hurt small farmers most of all. Here's why:
You're a big company that has developed a new seed (at considerable expense) and now wants to commercialize it. Thanks to your modifications, the seed is very valuable. Maybe it will save a farmer $1000 per acre in growing/harvesting costs each year. What do you charge for this?
Today, you can sign a contract with the farmer whereby he agrees not to sow next year any seeds that he harvests from this year's usage, and then you can charge the farmer something less than $1000/acre for one year's usage of the seed. You can charge this fee because you know that if he chooses to use this modified seed again in future years, he will pay you in each year that he uses it.
A lot of farmers can afford to pay this amount. (Plus, you can give them financing for less than a year, so that they don't have to lay out the money until they've sown the seed.)
Now the government enacts the committee's recommendations. Suddenly, the farmer can buy from you once, and then use the seed forever by judicious harvesting and sowing. And you can't contract with him not to do this, because the "farmer's privilege" will trump any such contractual provision in the courts.
Now what do you charge? Since you will only get paid once by this farmer, you will want to charge some up-front price that comes close to the dicounted present value of the $1000/acre/year that you used to get. I could do some funky math here, but suffice to say that this could easily be $5000/acre or even $10000/acre. Right now. Up-front, before the farmer ever uses the stuff. And you probably won't be so keen to finance this for five years.
So whereas the typical farmer might be able to pay the $1000/acre each year before, that farmer will likely find it all but impossible to come up with $5000/acre or $10000/acre under the new scheme. Plus, what happens if the new seed isn't a big hit in the marketplce? Or if a still newer seed comes out sooner than expected? In the old scheme, the large seed company bore most of the risk, since the farmer could cancel his contract for the seed each year. Now, the farmer pays up front and bears the market and technological risk. In general, the large seed company is better able to efficiently absorb this risk than the typical farmer.
Of course, there is one type of farmer who can come up with $10000/acre and who can absorb risk: the large corporate farm. So the seed company will sell its seed to the large corporate farms, who will in turn further push the small farmer to extinction. Not that I mind if the small farmers go the way of the dodo bird, but I suspect that the gut instinct of those pushing for this "farmer's privilege" was that they were somehow defending the little farmer against the big, bad seed firm.
Alternatively, the seed company could develop a new strain of the seed that had all of the beneficial properties and was also sterile. This would obviate the need to worry about farmers' harvesting seed for subsequent sowings. But it will be more expensive for the company to produce each year (since the company can't simply harvest and sow seeds from sterile crops, either), which will result in higher prices and less diffusion of the new seed than could have been achieved.
Or, in the worst scenario, seed companies may reduce their investment in developing modified seeds because the commercial value of such investment is reduced by this committee's recommendation. Then, some good innovations won't be made, and we all suffer. Unless you're Jeremy Rifkin and think that all biotech is bad. The only people who should be applauding this recommendation are corporate farmers (a little bit) and the anti-biotech Luddites (a lot).
Participating in the 3rd UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (UNWCAR) was a positive experience for the CLC delegates who had the privilege of representing their unions at this major world event. We worked together in great solidarity throughout the NGO and government processes influencing the Conferences' final outcomes....
It's good to see that the CLC reps felt so right at home rubbing shoulders with the lackeys sent by thuggish regimes of all races, colors, and creeds (with the exception of one creed that seemed less-than-welcome at Durban).
As we arrived back to our communities and offices, two events occurred which have rawly exposed racism and have gravely impacted anti-racism work in Canada and throughout many parts of the world. They have forced a re-analysis of our context and our actions within it.
Firstly, we returned to find that many had been influenced by the overwhelmingly negative and misguided coverage of UNWCAR by mainstream media. In Canada, the National Post had the most vigorous and damaging coverage, which included stating that the Conference was anti-white racist, anti-Semitic, inconclusive and a waste of public resources.
Yes, the racist coverage of the Canadian media. I guess Human Rights Watch et al. must also be raw racists, since they lamented the hijacking of the Durban conference to focus attention on Israel and reparations from the West, and deflect it from any of the above-indicated thuggish regimes.
Secondly, on September 11th, three days after the closing ceremonies, attacks on New York and Washington killed thousands of Americans, uprooted the terrified Afghan people, and has many nations throughout the world realigning and preparing for future attacks.
Um, something tells me that the CLC won't see any raw racism in the terror attacks...
Our political and social climate is in a state of profound change. National security is under scrutiny, immigration legislation is being targeted, and civil liberties are uncertain. Temples and mosques in our communities have been firebombed and burnt. Muslim, Arab and Sikh neighbours have been criminalized, threatened, beaten and choked.
Ah, it's those white folks' latent racism coming out again.
White supremacy groups have mobilized on campuses.
In the last nine months, which campus groups have demonstrated a greater threat to noble principles, and have made or acted upon physical threats against those who disagree with them? a) Aryan Nations on any campus in North America; b) General Union of Palestinian Students at SFSU? If you picked a), congratulations! You are qualified to take a leadership role in the CLC!
To any Canadian academics reading this, you may be supporting the CLC financially! The Canadian Association of University Faculty (CAUT) recently set up an "independent" organization called the National Union of CAUT (NUCAUT) which has become a registered member association of the CLC. If you are on one of the faculties that has voted to become a member of NUCAUT, then $7.80/year of your association dues are going to the CLC to fund tripe such as this.
This week, 3,000 dedicated unionists are gathering at a Canadian Labour Congress convention in Vancouver. So what's labour's hottest issue these days? Is it how to organize the kids at Starbucks? How to breathe new life into the NDP? Wrong. It's Israel.
Major unions across Canada have recently passed emergency resolutions condemning Israel, and they want the CLC to do the same. "I think it is appropriate if you are a union that believes in social justice for all," says Deborah Bourque, who's president of the 40,000-strong Canadian Union of Postal Workers.
The CUPW resolution is typical. When I asked to see it, the union referred me to a militantly pro-Palestinian Web site where it's posted. Ms. Bourque believes it's fair and balanced. But it casts Israel as the bad guy. It says suicide bombings have to stop, but doesn't mention who directs them. And it includes the usual demand for Israel to immediately withdraw from the territories that it "invaded" in 1967.
"I'm not an expert on the historical nuances," says Ms. Bourque.
To be fair, few of us are. But saying that Israel invaded the territories is like saying the U.S. invaded Japan, without mentioning Pearl Harbor.
I can't wait to cross that next picket line, and do my part to help break a CLC strike.
People often confide in me at parties. After one glass of merlot, they're telling me the most appalling things, including their secret racial dislikes.
In fact, back in mid-January [no longer posted on the Web] Mallick regaled us with a story of a party she went to where one or more guests started spewing forth anti-Semitic comments. (She felt very virtuous in feeling angry about his comments, and then linked these in a phenomenally awkward way to George Bush's use of the word "Paki" that week.)
Here's my question: Heather, what kinds of freakin' parties do you get invited to? I do my share of socializing, and somehow the parties I go to never veer into discussions of racial dislikes. We somehow manage to talk about a variety of subjects that don't include derogatory remarks about other groups. What sort of circle do you run with, that this should be a matter of course when you socialize?
But Mallick's coup de grace is her intoning the memory of Abraham Lincoln as the ultimate weapon against "racial profiling" of visitors:
But I must disagree when he says, "Extremism in defence of public safety is no vice." Public safety as the ultimate good, in thrall to which we toss away our sense of limits? Americans abandoning Abe Lincoln's principles out of panic? I cannot think so.
The delicious irony, of course, is that President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, among other civil liberties, during the Civil War. Hence, his principles appear to precisely support the idea that, in times of war or national crisis, certain liberties can be curtailed for the public good.
One might argue that, as a Canadian, Mallick shouldn't be expected to understand American history. But one of Mallick's fundamental tenets is that Canadians know more about U.S. history and U.S. ideals than Americans (except perhaps for a few Americans in the Northeast and Pacific coast who have, improbably, learned to read without moving their lips). Besides, this facet of Lincoln's presidency received a huge amount of press after September 11 as Americans grappled with issued of civil liberties vs. safety, so anyone who kept remotely in touch with the U.S. press should be familiar with this. I guess Lincoln's actions never made it into the Guardian, the Independent, or the Observer.