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Posts tagged switzerland


For years, Swiss scientists have blithely created genetically modified rice, corn and apples. But did they ever stop to consider just how humiliating such experiments may be to plants?

That’s a question they must now ask. Last spring, this small Alpine nation began mandating that geneticists conduct their research without trampling on a plant’s dignity.

“Unfortunately, we have to take it seriously,” Beat Keller, a molecular biologist at the University of Zurich. “It’s one more constraint on doing genetic research.”

Dr. Keller recently sought government permission to do a field trial of genetically modified wheat that has been bred to resist a fungus. He first had to debate the finer points of plant dignity with university ethicists. Then, in a written application to the government, he tried to explain why the planned trial wouldn’t “disturb the vital functions or lifestyle” of the plants. He eventually got the green light.

The rule, based on a constitutional amendment, came into being after the Swiss Parliament asked a panel of philosophers, lawyers, geneticists and theologians to establish the meaning of flora’s dignity.

“We couldn’t start laughing and tell the government we’re not going to do anything about it,” says Markus Schefer, a member of the ethics panel and a professor of law at the University of Basel. “The constitution requires it.”

In April, the team published a 22-page treatise on “the moral consideration of plants for their own sake.” It stated that vegetation has an inherent value and that it is immoral to arbitrarily harm plants by, say, “decapitation of wildflowers at the roadside without rational reason.”

On the question of genetic modification, most of the panel argued that the dignity of plants could be safeguarded “as long as their independence, i.e., reproductive ability and adaptive ability, are ensured.” In other words: It’s wrong to genetically alter a plant and render it sterile.


Creative ideas are not always solo strokes of genius, argues Ed Catmull, the computer-scientist president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, in the current issue of the Harvard Business Review. Frequently, he says, the best ideas emerge when talented people from different disciplines work together.

This week, Nature begins a series of six Essays that illustrate Catmull’s case. Each recalls a conference in which a creative outcome emerged from scientists pooling ideas, expertise and time with others — especially policy-makers, non-governmental organizations and the media. Each is written by someone who was there, usually an organizer or the meeting chair. Because the conferences were chosen for their societal consequences, we’ve called our series ‘Meetings that Changed the World’.

This week, François de Rose relives the drama of the December 1951 conference at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris that led to the creation of CERN, the European particle-physics laboratory based near Geneva (see page 174). De Rose, then France’s representative to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, chaired the meeting. He had got caught up in the process after becoming friends with Robert Oppenheimer, one of CERN’s earliest proponents. De Rose said in a separate interview with Nature that CERN was the result of the capacity of scientists such as Oppenheimer to propose grand ideas, and worry about obstacles later.

Although this approach does not always work, the next few weeks will show that it really has changed the world. In the ensuing half-century, CERN has revolutionized our understanding of the subatomic world; with the switching-on this week of the Large Hadron Collider (see page 156) it promises to scale new heights.