Italian Biotech Project Draws Fire From Researchers

An initiative launched by a nonprofit foundation in Italy that promotes innovation in agricultural genomics has recently sparked a storm of controversy among Italian and European biotechnologists. The scientists believe the foundation may be receiving significant funding from the Italian government without proper peer review of its proposed research.

During a conference in Rome in January, the Genetic Rights Foundation (FRG) presented a project called Geneticamente that would carry out several research projects over the next 4 years focusing on a technique called marker-assisted selection. MAS helps researchers select the best features of plants within the same species. FRG defines MAS as "a sustainable and environmentally friendly biotechnology offering the benefits of innovation without genetic contraindications of GMOs."

The foundation's president, philosopher Mario Capanna, told conferees that it aims to set up a leading research center in the agro-genomic sector that could become a point of reference for the rest of Europe and also spread its knowledge to North African countries. During the conference, Capanna said, "We have found resources to such an extent that we are now able to invest in this project €20 million from 2011 to 2015."

The news rang alarm bells among researchers because it was not clear whether the government has already allocated the funding—which corresponds to one-fifth of the total budget for the Italian national research program for all disciplines—or whether the Geneticamente research project had undergone a peer-reviewed evaluation.

Last November, a number of public bodies, including the prime minister's office and seven government ministries, signed an agreement to support the foundation without specifying the nature of that support. The prime minister's office declined to provide ScienceInsider with any clarification about the potential allocation of the funding. FRG has already received €300,000 from the city of Rome and €500,000 from the Lazio region, which has also donated a historic castle in Ladispoli, a town near Rome, to house the research center with a free 20-year lease. Immunologist Fernando Aiuti, a councilor for the city of Rome, opposed the decision of the city to fund FRG on scientific grounds. He told ScienceInsider that the city's funds were allocated without any prior peer-review evaluation of the project.

In January, the Association of Italian Biotechnologists (ANBI) wrote an open letter to the government expressing concern about how the project would be funded. The president of the European Federation of Biotechnology, Marc Van Montagu, followed suit last month with a letter asking the government to clarify whether the funding would be allocated. So far, neither body has received a reply. "We cannot be silent in front of an expected investment of €20 million that could be received by an NGO without any track record of scientific expertise in the scientific area of plant genetics and genomics," says ANBI President Simone Maccaferri, "especially if this investment would be granted by public institutions without a proper scientific evaluation process".

In a letter to ANBI, FRG said that it never claimed that it was already being funded by the government. "Capanna only meant to say that the cost of the entire project would be €20 million [and] that the foundation hopes to attract from public and private institutions in the near future," an FRG spokesperson told ScienceInsider. Capanna has accused ANBI of spreading false information about the funding, adding that it is ready to take ANBI to court if the association refuses to apologize.

FRG Director Ivan Verga told ScienceInsider that so far the foundation has raised a total of €1.5 million from the city of Rome, the Lazio region, private investors, and its own resources. He says that they have also submitted proposals to both national and European funding bodies for another €2.5 million. However, Verga says he cannot reveal the names of those bodies for privacy reasons.

According to Verga, FRG now employs 11 researchers and has not yet set up a scientific advisory board, but it has appointed a scientific director. "A merely representative scientific board cannot exploit the synergies between the experience and skills of its members," he says. "We intend to create several scientific committees whose members will also be actively involved in the process of addressing the future activities of the foundation."