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Kickstarter says it consulted scientists before banning genetically-modified organisms

Kickstarter says it consulted scientists before banning genetically-modified organisms

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

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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.

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