Established in December 2004 in the Netherlands, the Public Research and Regulation Initiative (PRRI), also known as the Association for Public Research and Regulation, is a foundation with the stated aim of involving 'the public research sector in regulations relevant to the development and application of biotechnology'. The implicit concern is that the 'development and application' of genetically modified organisms will be obstructed if regulations are either too extensive or too stringent.
PRRI's focus is not just on national regulations, and how they are implemented, but on the international agreements that influence them, particularly the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which controls the trade in genetically modified organisms. It is the view of the foundation that while industry and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were well represented both at the the negotiations that led to the adoption of the Protocol and at the first Meeting of Parties to the Protocol (MOP1 in February 2004), a third group 'the public research sector involved in developing biotechnological applications' should also have been given a voice. The aim of PRRI is to make sure this sector has a bigger say on the Protocol at MOP2/MOP3 and beyond.
PRRI also issued a position statement on the Aarhus Convention - the United Nations Treaty covering Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters. PRRI opposes the amending of the Convention so as to extend the rights of the public to participate in decision-making on GMOs. Like the biotechnology industry, PRRI is adamantly opposed to any amendment that would give the public any greater rights. In other words, these 'public researchers' while seeking a far bigger voice for themselves in decision-making on GMOs, want no say for the public.
PRRI also wants to talk up the benefits of public research into genetically modified crops and, in particular, to counter the 'misconception' that GM crops are 'the exclusive domain of a handful of big, western multinationals.' The foundation contrasts this handful of big companies with a 'public research sector involved in developing biotechnological applications, which includes over a hundred thousand researchers in thousands of governmental, academic and international research institutions in developing and developed countries.'
It is unclear how reliable these figures are, however, particularly as the foundation uses the vague term 'biotechnological applications', which could have relevance to a whole variety of fields (medical, industrial, environmental and agricultural) and to a wide range of biological processes. It seems likely that the number of researchers involved specifically in developing GM crops - PRRI's main point of concern - is a small fraction of the figure the foundation quotes. Moreover, following the launch of the initiative, and in the run up to MOP2, the 'list of public sector scientists and others who support the initiative and wish to be actively involved in the activities' of the foundation amounted to just 113 scientists (as at 19 May 2005).
The list of those supporting the initiative also undermines PRRI's clear cut separation of public research and private companies. The list includes, for instance, Dr. Andrew Bennett of the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture. Yet, 3 of the 5 seats on the Syngenta Foundation's board are occupied by directors of Syngenta, the world's largest biotech corporation, and Syngenta's Chairman is the Foundation's President.
PRRI's call for increased leverage for 'nonprofit' 'public sector' players, in fact, belies the heavy industrial-alignment of most public sector agricultural biotechnology, where there is a long history of involvement with intensive agricultural R&D, of collaboration with agribusiness multinationals and of significant dependence on commercial funding. The effect of this has inevitably been to generate a convergence of interests, views and even personnel, between private sector and public sector operators.
Other supporters of PRRI also point to this interpenetration of public and private. Dr. Gerard Barry, for instance, although now an employee of the International Rice Research Institute was formerly a research director at Monsanto. The Chairman of the Public Research and Regulation Initiative, Prof. Phil Dale, works at the John Innes Centre, which has benefitted from tens of millions of pounds in funding from big biotechnology corporations.
This public-private convergence can also be seen in the way in which the Initiative was launched. PRRI's formal launch took place at the Danforth Center in St. Louis, Missouri (3-4 March, 2005), hosted by Roger Beachy, the Center's founding president. St Louis is the home town of Monsanto, and the Danforth Center was, in fact, established by Monsanto 'and academic partners' with a $70-million pledge from the company. Monsanto also donated the 40-acre tract of land, valued at $11.4 million, on which the Center is built.
Similarly, Monsanto and other biotechnology companies have helped to fund the research of the Center's founding president, Rog