Skip to main content

Kickstarter says it consulted scientists before banning genetically-modified organisms

Kickstarter says it consulted scientists before banning genetically-modified organisms


But co-founder Yancey Strickler still calls glowing plants a 'cool project'

Share this story

Glowing Plants on Kickstarter (credit: Glowing Plants)
Glowing Plants on Kickstarter (credit: Glowing Plants)

Kickstarter waded right into the center of the ongoing debate over how genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) should be regulated last week, when the crowdfunding website quietly altered its rules to prohibit creators of all future projects from handing out GMOs as rewards to their backers. At the time, Kickstarter didn't have much to say about the rule change, only the generic response that it was "protecting the health and creative spirit of Kickstarter for the long term." Now, one of Kickstarter's cofounders, communications head Yancey Strickler, wants to further clarify the company's position. "We’re simply reflecting where the scientific community stands as we understand it," Strickler told The Verge in an email interview (full Q&A below). Yet he still doesn't explain just what about GMOs in particular concerns the company.

"We’re simply reflecting where the scientific community stands as we understand it."

Strickler admitted that the decision stemmed from the recent success and controversy over one project to create "Glowing Plants" out of firefly genes, which earned over $484,000 on the website but also incurred worries from some scientists and anti-GMO advocates. The project isn't blocked from going forward because the rule change went into effect after it finished funding. Strickler himself said he thought that the Glowing Plants effort was a "cool project," and the ban is "in no way a reflection on the project or its creators." But the project's creators, a team of synthetic biologists, previously told The Verge they were disappointed in the move and said that the change might inspire their fellow scientists to move to other crowdfunding sites.

Strickler didn't offer much in the way of explanation for why Kickstarter didn't publicize the rule change more broadly its own. He claimed his company "reached out to a few scientists, researchers, and others in the biohacking world for their perspective," before making the decision. He also said that Kickstarter would be open reevaluating the rule as the debate over GMOs continues. Kickstarter has asked us to publish Stricker's responses in full.

Why did Kickstarter decide to make this change — banning project creators from giving away GMOs to backers as rewards — and why at this time? How did Kickstarter arrive at the conclusion this would be best?

The Glowing Plants project sparked a debate in the scientific community about Kickstarter being used to release genetically modified organisms to the public. This was a new world for us, and we followed the debate closely.

To better understand the debate, we reached out to a few scientists, researchers, and others in the biohacking world for their perspective. What emerged is that the scientific community is unsettled on the best practices and ethics of releasing genetically modified organisms into the world. The scientific community is still debating this. It’s a complicated issue.

After a lot of deliberation we felt the most prudent course was to create a narrow rule that addressed the most debated part of this: offering genetically modified organisms as rewards to backers. It intentionally does not prohibit projects involving biohacking in general.

How does this change help Kickstarter project creators, backers and the overall platform?

Out of more than 100,000 launched projects on Kickstarter, there have been just a small handful where this might have been relevant. Because these projects are rare and the guideline was designed to focus only on rewards, it will have very little impact on the types of projects that seek funding.

Did this change have anything to do with the success and controversy surrounding the "Glowing Plants" project? Why or why not?

It's impossible to anticipate everything that people may want to use this platform for. We're seeing new uses of Kickstarter all the time, and the Glowing Plants project is a good example. The challenge is that Glowing Plants is a cool project! This guideline is in no way a reflection on the project or its creators. As stewards of Kickstarter, however, we have to think more broadly than a single project.

GMOs have been around for many years, including glowing plants. Going back even further, it's clear that the vast majority of plant varieties consumed and enjoyed for ornamental purposes these days were selectively bred by humans, a cruder form of genetic manipulation. Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics, began his work on pea plants. Yet I note that other types of selectively-bred plants are not banned as rewards on Kickstarter. Why the double standard?

We’re simply reflecting where the scientific community stands as we understand it. Selective breeding of plants and livestock is not the subject of widespread debate. This more nascent world of bioengineering and synthetic biology is. Thankfully scientists have the benefit of time for a consensus to emerge, and we’re interested in seeing what that will be.

The creators of the Glowing Plant project were concerned, as they expressed to us in an article, that this decision on the part of Kickstarter was sending a message that synthetic biology should be considered dangerous or suspicious. What is your response to that concern?

We are in no way passing judgment on the field. Kickstarter is a funding platform for artistic and creative projects. While we love science and have had some amazing science-related projects, this is an evolving debate in an area outside of our core focus.

Why didn't Kickstarter announce this change more broadly in a public forum such as its blog or Twitter account, or homepage? Why was the change included in the guidelines for project creators without warning?

Our guidelines are constantly evolving as we respond to new uses of the platform. While they are never finished and never perfect, we try to take the time to get them right.

Is Kickstarter open to reviewing or considering reversing course on this decision? Why or why not?

We'll continue to follow this debate and we'll be watching closely to see where it settles. When best practices emerge, we'll look at them closely and see how they might fit within Kickstarter.

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed Two hours ago Not just you

Emma RothTwo hours ago
Rihanna’s headlining the Super Bowl Halftime Show.

Apple Music’s set to sponsor the Halftime Show next February, and it’s starting out strong with a performance from Rihanna. I honestly can’t remember which company sponsored the Halftime Show before Pepsi, so it’ll be nice to see how Apple handles the show for Super Bowl LVII.

Emma RothTwo hours ago
Starlink is growing.

The Elon Musk-owned satellite internet service, which covers all seven continents including Antarctica, has now made over 1 million user terminals. Musk has big plans for the service, which he hopes to expand to cruise ships, planes, and even school buses.

Musk recently said he’ll sidestep sanctions to activate the service in Iran, where the government put restrictions on communications due to mass protests. He followed through on his promise to bring Starlink to Ukraine at the start of Russia’s invasion, so we’ll have to wait and see if he manages to bring the service to Iran as well.

External Link
Emma Roth5:52 PM UTC
We might not get another Apple event this year.

While Apple was initially expected to hold an event to launch its rumored M2-equipped Macs and iPads in October, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman predicts Apple will announce its new devices in a series of press releases, website updates, and media briefings instead.

I know that it probably takes a lot of work to put these polished events together, but if Apple does pass on it this year, I will kind of miss vibing to the livestream’s music and seeing all the new products get presented.

External Link
Emma RothSep 24
California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoes the state’s “BitLicense” law.

The bill, called the Digital Financial Assets Law, would establish a regulatory framework for companies that transact with cryptocurrency in the state, similar to New York’s BitLicense system. In a statement, Newsom says it’s “premature to lock a licensing structure” and that implementing such a program is a “costly undertaking:”

A more flexible approach is needed to ensure regulatory oversight can keep up with rapidly evolving technology and use cases, and is tailored with the proper tools to address trends and mitigate consumer harm.

Welcome to the new Verge

Revolutionizing the media with blog posts

Nilay PatelSep 13
Andrew WebsterSep 24
Look at this Thing.

At its Tudum event today, Netflix showed off a new clip from the Tim Burton series Wednesday, which focused on a very important character: the sentient hand known as Thing. The full series starts streaming on November 23rd.

The Verge
Andrew WebsterSep 24
Get ready for some Netflix news.

At 1PM ET today Netflix is streaming its second annual Tudum event, where you can expect to hear news about and see trailers from its biggest franchises, including The Witcher and Bridgerton. I’ll be covering the event live alongside my colleague Charles Pulliam-Moore, and you can also watch along at the link below. There will be lots of expected names during the stream, but I have my fingers crossed for a new season of Hemlock Grove.

Tom WarrenSep 23
Has the Windows 11 2022 Update made your gaming PC stutter?

Nvidia GPU owners have been complaining of stuttering and poor frame rates with the latest Windows 11 update, but thankfully there’s a fix. Nvidia has identified an issue with its GeForce Experience overlay and the Windows 11 2022 Update (22H2). A fix is available in beta from Nvidia’s website.