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Wageningen’s free patents to the rescue!

At the opening of the academic year, Louise Fresco announced that the patents on the gene editing technique known as CRISPR-Cas will be free for use by non-profit NGOs. Now regardless of your opinion on CRISPR-Cas or GMOs, some alarm bells are surely ringing.

Following, a speech that resembled the enthusiasm of a disheveled batman villain still yearning for world domination, the university released a press release with a poignant quote from Louise.

“I envision us bringing together groups of promising scientists without a direct research assignment. The most unorthodox ideas would then be allowed, along with masterful failures. Chance discoveries – of which CRISPR-Cas technology is an example – only come to light when you see them. We need to have the courage to look at reality in different ways.”

Ok, if you haven’t vomited yet, congratulations. If you want to stop here, I understand. But if you want to break down why this is such a problematic thing to say, then let’s go.

1. What’s a masterful failure? Is this when you try to do something and it goes horribly wrong, but turns out to be kind of useful? Like if you tried to edit the gene sequence of a seed but instead developed an entire McDonalds restaurant by accident. Masterful indeed!

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2. Conflicting interests. Fresco and Jan van der Oost published an article in Nature saying how we all need to Waive our CRISPR patents to meet food needs in low income countries – genius why didn’t I think of this before? At the bottom of this article there is a section titled Competing Interests which states:

“Louise Fresco is an independent non-executive director of Syngenta Group Co. Ltd. Jan van der Oost is a consultant for Hudson River Biotechnology, holds shares in NTrans Technologies and Scope Biosciences, and is named in 5 patents granted or pending.”

For those who don’t know, these are companies making big money from gene editing for plant breeding, and Jan’s patents will probably make him some big money once they’re approved. Why not use your side-job at a university to promote your company’s products in the NGO sector right?

3. Allowing unorthodox ideas? Funny you say that, I was thinking that ideas these days were becoming too orthodox all right – damn political correctness, am I right Louise? But seriously, maybe we should have a dialogue to define unorthodox together, just before anything gets out of hand.

4. Your university community doesn’t agree on this but you’re promoting it at our opening. We’re a university of over 10,000 academic and non-academic staff, and a bunch of students with an even bigger bunch of conflicting opinions. Who gives Louise Fresco and her trusty sidekick Jan the right to promote their world-saving-ideas at our opening of the academic year?

All in all, it’s been a strange start to the year. I’m sure this has caused some serious discussions at the coffee machines, but just think how much better that coffee could be with a drop of gene-editing? All jokes aside, using our university as a stage for a marketing campaign is just bad form from Louise. No but seriously, let’s have a dialogue.