Swiss to Keep Transgenic Research

BERN--Swiss voters yesterday overwhelmingly rejected a nationwide referendum that would have banned research on transgenic animals as well as patents on genetically modified organisms. The decisive defeat of the so-called "Gene Protection Initiative" is expected to give a boost to Swiss research, prevent an exodus of Swiss molecular biologists, and spur greater investment in the nation's biotech industry.

"This is great news for young scientists in Switzerland," says immunologist Hans Hengartner, who codirects the University of Zurich's Institute for Experimental Immunology. With two-thirds of the voters rejecting the initiative, the drubbing shows that "Swiss people did not respond well to the 'scare tactics' used by the initiative's sponsors," says Hengartner. "In the end, what counted the most was objective information."

Sunday's vote ended an energetic campaign by Swiss biologists to convince the public that transgenic laboratory animals are essential to biomedical research, and that genetic engineering can provide benefits without posing a serious threat to the environment. Last month, 3000 scientists and supporters marched through the streets of Zurich; four of Switzerland's five living Nobel Prize winners held a news conference to oppose the initiative; and scientists wrote newspaper columns and appeared at public forums across the country to explain the nature of transgenic research.

Proponents of the gene protection initiative--a diverse coalition of environmental, animal-rights, and political groups that collected 111,000 signatures to bring the proposal to a vote--say their fight isn't over. "We will discuss a new initiative," says Florianne Koechlin, a coalition leader. While supporters were disappointed in the decisive vote, Koechlin says they were pleased that the initiative at least "sparked a wide discussion" on bioethics.