When Kiwi rat killing expert Doctor James Russell was told his research was being sized up for United States military funding, he wasn’t surprised.
“The US military – they have very long fingers. Even through the universities in New Zealand, they have a representative that comes around and just asks, ‘hey, what are you guys up to’.
“And obviously we’re in the business of eradicating entire populations of animals from an island and so they have cocked their ear towards me once or twice.
“You don’t have to be a genius to see that there’s potential military application in that.”
In this instance, Russell’s work was being measured for suitability against a US$100 million research pot made available by the United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa).
Also being evaluated were remote islands around New Zealand, sized up for live trials of genetically modified rodents.
The interest in Russell and New Zealand emerged during an investigation into the activities of a multi-national science advocacy and gene drive research body called Gbird.
It has a US$6.5m slice of that Darpa money and has been considering how to spend that in New Zealand.
The detail was revealed in a database of emails and documents charting Gbird’s growing focus on New Zealand – and the involvement of a taxpayer-owned Crown Research Institute which told the consortium it would make gene drive research a focus of “NZ Inc”.
It shows how the rise of the predator-free movement has intersected neatly with the bold new frontier of gene drive technology.
Gene drive research is the latest, greatest frontier in science as scientists grapple with the implications of genetic manipulation to remove inherited characteristics from subsequent generations. For example, wiping out one gender from a population of rats means no more rats.
The database of more than 2000 documents released by North Carolina State University (NCSU) reveal Gbird’s interest in New Zealand as a possible test site and its efforts to get alongside those leading our fight against predators.
The documents show careful efforts by Gbird – Genetic Biocontrol of Invasive Rodents – to shape its image and manage possible fallout over winning a $6.5m pool of Darpa cash.
Among the documents is the report of the meeting with Russell’s meeting in mid-2017 with Gbird’s co-ordinator Royden Saah.
After the meeting, Saah reported to Gbird members: “Co-ordinating with James Russell. Appears no NZ islands meet the strict criteria used within Darpa grant.
“We are now considering small NZ islands that don’t have rodents present that could be used as trial sites, with mice sourced from remote NZ islands larger than our 300ha cut-off that may be future targets themselves.”
First it’s important to understand where New Zealand sits in the world of pest eradication.
Our national goal of wiping out possums, rats and stoats roughly sits with the research focus of leading thinkers on gene drive technology.
That’s because it’s not just about being able to create new technology but what you do with it. And in a world of potential – agricultural or medical benefits – conservation has become a core area of interest to gene drive researchers.
Gene drive technology appeared to offer definite answers to those seeking to eradicate predators. It also offered a permissive, public-friendly area in which to explore new technology.
A critical aspect of new technology is the willingness of society to allow new frontiers to be explored.
As the NCSU papers show, Gbird is keenly aware of the need to have community acceptance for what it is doing.
As any geneticist in New Zealand will tell you, the Royal Commission on genetic engineering in New Zealand in 2001 and the debate which followed created such a backlash it saw rules introduced that scientists consider starved them of opportunities for research.
Russell reflects on the 2003 debate: “The discussion we had 15 years ago was about genetic modification of our food chain, driven by private companies that had economic motives.”
By contrast, he says the debate now is around conservation and is driven by academics. The argument countering the 2003 backlash is: “Nobody is looking to make money out of this. It’s for our biodiversity.”
This is reflected in funding for gene drive research across the world. The Gates Foundation is funding study into gene drive research on mosquitoes carrying malaria with the idea that altering the insect’s genetic makeup could wipe out the infectious disease.
Others, such as Gbird, are focused on mammalian pests – mice and rats, specifically.
“Overseas researchers interested in pest control or eradication are all looking at New Zealand,” says Forest and Bird chief executive Kevin Hague.
There are several reasons for that. We are distant from other land masses, and we are surrounded by islands filled with pests that allow confined testing to eradicate whole populations.
We also have a natural ecology that once flourished in the absence of predators. Now infested with rats, we can target those pest populations without fear of killing protected mammals.
And there’s our national focus on killing pests. “This is a country in the world that has done the most in this area,” says Hague.
Not only that, but the government’s adoption of a grassroots ambition to become “predator free” by 2050 signalled to the world New Zealand was a country that took killing pests incredibly seriously.
And so, says Hague, the international interest in New Zealand is hot.
But when researchers come here, Hague says they will find no clear strategy for achieving the 2050 target.
And its in that relative vacuum that Gbird has been making friends through its relationship with Landcare Research, and building bonds with key players in the Department of Conservation and those running taxpayer-funded research projects likely to set a course for our pest eradication future.
The links are exactly what Gbird needs to fulfil its objective of “cautiously investigating the feasibility of, and assessing the social, ethical, and biological risks of, gene-drive modified organisms for eradication of island invasive species”.
It’s a very direct statement that considers no other form of pest control.
And Gbird’s focus is unmistakably New Zealand. As one member of the steering committee told others in an email: “I understand that New Zealand could be a target in the future.”
The North Carolina State University documents include the Gbird Memorandum of Understanding between its seven member organisations.
The New Zealand link is through Landcare Research, the Crown Research Institute focused on science outcomes for the benefit of biodiversity and land use.
Other parties to the agreement are Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, NCSU, Texas A&M University, University of Adelaide, US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and a non-government organisation called Island Conservation.
For New Zealand’s part, the agreement assured Gbird that Landcare Research would “co-ordinate a ‘NZ incorporated’ engagement with, and support for, Gbird”.
Its other commitments include building capability in regulatory regimes needed to get gene drive testing carried out. The remainder of its commitments broadly align with research under New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge, which Landcare Research oversees.
In return, Landcare Research gets a seat on the steering committee for Gbird and a front row seat in a consortium that is carrying out history-making research. Landcare Research’s representative on Gbird is Dunedin-based scientist Dr Dan Tompkins, the CRI’s team leader for Wildlife and Ecology management.
Tompkins is also project manager for the Predator Free 2050 Ltd Science Strategy which includes a range of research areas, including whether “gene-drives may potentially be researched in the future for application initially to rat eradication”.
On Gbird, Tompkins says: “They are looking at an area of science that could be of benefit to things we are trying to achieve in New Zealand.
There was a range of views around the technology, from ‘do it now’ to ‘don’t’.
“Our involvement is in that research area. Would these things be socially acceptable?”
Well, would these things be socially acceptable?
That’s a key question which is the focus of anyone working in the research field, says Jim Thomas, co-executive director of international lobby group ETC Group, which started last century defending the rights of share farmers through to modern-day opposition to genetic engineering.
It is ETC Group that has made the Gbird documents available, after they were obtained by researcher Edward Hammond and the Third World Network through the Freedom of Information Act.
Thomas said messaging around gene drive technology was focused on pest eradication, even though Darpa was one of the world’s two main funders for research.
When it comes to what gene drives can do, those developing the technology have steered clear of publicly contentious areas.
“They do not want to talk about food,” says Thomas. “They do not want to talk about military interests.”
The NCSU papers reveal Darpa’s investment in research sits around $100m through its Safe Genes program. The program is almost entirely about defending society from unauthorised or unregulated gene drive uses – the technology is considered a potential “bio terror” danger and a threat to US national security.
“If they want to move ahead with field trials, they need to not hit public resistance,” says Thomas.
Gbird has always had an understanding it has image issues to manage, with both its Darpa funding and the gene-bending science it is promoting.
When it created a draft founding statement for its website had some members uncertain about including gene drive’s potential agricultural benefits alongside the conservation aims.
NCSU ecologist and genetics researcher Dr Fred Gould told members he wanted the “focus solely on our mission of eradication of invasive rodents from islands where they harm biodiversity”.
“If we want to defend a long term objective that also includes agriculture, we need to be able to defend the broad geographic use of this technology on continents.
“This will involve addressing different environmental issues (as) well as the concerns of a different group of stakeholders. I think this could dilute our focus on island conservation.”
Landcare’s Tompkins agreed: “My main reasoning is that many see conservation use as a backdoor for adoption for agricultural purposes, and this may expose the current Gbird focus to undue flak.”
And when Heath Packard of Island Conservation – another of the seven member groups – had an interview lined up on Radio NZ on the wonders of gene drive technology, he was told by Tompkins: “From a PF (Predator Free) 2050 perspective, I’d be grateful if the line is that genetic biocontrol approaches are being explored along with the range of other potential approaches.”
Packard responded: “I’m connecting with the NZ DoC programme and communications leads on the PF2050 very soon so we can better co-ordinate on our messaging.”
The imminent arrival of the Darpa funding – announced in August – saw advice drafted in an “internal Gbird communique” around handling media queries.
They were told to not proactively promote the agreement and to use media officers as buffers for interview requests.
For those who were doing interviews, there were suggested questions and answers.
One such was: “How can you possibly pursue this technology knowing that the US Department of Defence has obviously concluded that it will be used for nefarious (dual-use) purposes, maybe against our own people?”
The suggested responses including telling reporters that Darpa was instrumental in creating the internet and GPS which were valuable tools fighting pests.
They were told to answer questions with “a value statement or a principled response”, suggesting Gbird steering committee member say: “We are all in this for the interests of society and nature. Like you, we want to save lives, support livelihoods, and preserve our natural world for generations to come.”
Gbird came to New Zealand in July this year the form of co-ordinator Royden Saah.
Along with being co-ordinator, Saah (also at NCSU) is a project manager for the NGO Island Conservation. It’s a group said to have its roots in the gene science advocacy group Revive & Restore, which advocates using the technology to restore extinct species, such as the woolly mammoth.
Saah’s proposed itinerary sets the tone for a 10-day charm offensive and intelligence-gathering exercise in New Zealand on behalf of Gbird.
It includes: “July 2-3 – Wellington NZ – Prepare & deliver scoping workshop on new genetic technologies in NZ with senior govt officials.”
The objectives for the trip included: “Catalyse high-level engagements within AU & NZ to increase understanding and awareness of Gbird. Catalyse increased involvement in AU/NZ focus areas.”
His trip report also noted “weekly meetings with Elaine Murphy, exploring funding for NZ involvement”. LinkedIn lists Murphy as DoC’s chief scientist for science and policy, and responsible for Zero Invasive Predators (ZIP).
DoC spokeswoman Bronwyn Saunders did not answer questions about Gbird connections, saying “DOC is not involved with GBird”.
Landcare Research’s Tompkins had earlier managed introductions for Saah to key DoC staff member Dr Edy MacDonald, who was studying social acceptance of the new gene technology.
Saah briefed Gbird on the New Zealand research, saying there was a “large-scale nation-wide survey” underway to ” understand New Zealanders level of acceptance of novel pest control technologies and the underlying values, beliefs, and worldviews”.
MacDonald’s work would explore a key issue were Gbird ever to get gene drives working.
Saah kept consortium members updated on the timing of the survey and that results were due back in early October.
There was, he said, “strong government support for engaging country with gene drive for pest control”.
That included discussion across government about how “to develop proposed approach”.
Gbird’s enthusiasm for the New Zealand research is clear – in a draft funding agreement with a US think-tank, Gbird offered to contribute work around social acceptance.
The draft agreement read: “In New Zealand, we will align with a just-initiated project being conducted by the ‘New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge’ on ‘Exploring New Zealand’s social licence towards novel pest control Technologies’.
The emails show MacDonald offering to brief Gbird. In one she said she would be on holiday in California in October and could “come to (Washington) DC to share our findings and what NZ is doing”.
DoC says MacDonald believed she was dealing with Saah as a representative of Island Conservation. It was unclear on whether she did present her research which showed Kiwis wanted more done on pest control and a third were comfortable if that included gene drives.
Gbird has told the NZ Herald that it wanted the results and had asked they be presented at a meeting on November 5 it did not go ahead. The research was made public here on November 16.
Saah’s short trip to New Zealand gave an appreciation of the opportunities – and many contacts.
He told Gbird he had a greater awareness of “how Australia and New Zealand operate”.
“The science, conservation, and social dynamics occurring here are clearly world class,” he wrote, and his visit would hopefully “create short-term and long-term benefits for both the greater Gbird partnership and especially my employer (Island Conservation), as this effort would not have been otherwise possible.”
The networks Saah looked to build with New Zealand included among Maori groups with a scientific focus. He told Tompkins he was putting forward a member of the Maori Biosafety Network as a possible member of the Gbird ethics board.
“I highlighted the close-to-fully-integrated society I observed in my brief 10 days in country,” he wrote. “I promoted that NZ could be a model for how the other countries approach indigenous populations.”
Among those Saah was keen to make contact with was Landcare Research’s Dr Andrea Byrom, head of the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge. The initiative aims to find new ways to deal with ecological and environmental problems, including consideration of gene drive technology.
They didn’t meet up – but Tompkins and Byrom were expected guests at a meeting at Australia’s Heron Island in October, hosted by Revive & Restore, the woolly mammoth crowd.
New Zealand attitudes were of great interest. Tompkins provided Gbird with his own insights on public acceptance and government attitudes, including a “NZ Regulatory Engagement Update”.
He said an initial meeting between policy makers and regulators from 12 agencies was a “strong positive discussion” although “confidential to the discussion group”.
But he added there were “no deal-breakers for genetic biocontrol application to invasive mammal control identified”.
He warned Pest-Free 2050 was “currently very political” and the next discussions would depend on “direction from government top-level”.
While DoC says it has nothing to do with Gbird, Jim Thomas from Etc Group says the inclusion of MacDonald on its regular email list suggests otherwise.
“It looks from the files she is a part of Gbird. They put her on the list. I would be concerned about a public official being part of that consortium trying to understand public resistance.”
It’s about proper separation and whether proximity to determined advocates could impact on the direction New Zealand takes.
Otago University’s Professor Neil Gemmell asks: “Is there an opportunity for Gbird to have undue influence in a New Zealand setting?
“I guess so. If we let them.”
Gemmell – who works at the cutting edge of research in this field – says there is the potential, in such an environment, for talk about actual or perceived conflicts of interest.
He knows Tompkins – has published papers and worked with him and others to help define projects for the science challenge – and makes the point there are “good people” involved in the Gbird project.
And as a collaboration, the sharing and support isn’t too unusual in the science community, he says. “Each partner is trying to show they can add in terms of adding value.”
But Gemmell was surprised when told of the possibility MacDonald had shared her New Zealand research with Gbird before it was published here.
“It feels odd for a New Zealand project to not be reported here first.”
Part of the complication in New Zealand is its small science community. It’s easy to get one person with expertise involved across a range of initiatives, just as Tompkins is.
It might be said “it sets it in a particular direction” but what’s the alternative? Putting someone in charge who doesn’t have the knowledge or skills?
“Overall, I think it’s an opportunity but it’s about what we want to do. And being aware of real and perceived conflicts of interest,” says Gemmell.
“The best way to do this is to have some form of completely independent group to develop this. You can’t be poacher and gamekeeper.”
Gemmell was at the original meeting where Gbird was conceived – hosted, he says, by Island Conservation. Like others, he refers to Island Conservation’s Revive & Restore roots, saying: “They’re much more hard-nosed about this technology.”
On Island Conservation, he characterises its thinking as “technology will solve the world’s problems”.
“I don’t quite believe that,” he says.
Gemmell recently issued a call for calm around gene drive research and a more measured pace.
“There’s probably too much of a push towards getting the technology working rather than what the technology will do if we get it right.”
Gemmell endorses Hague’s view that New Zealand is attractive to researchers working in the field. It has a straight-forward regulatory regime, less complicated opposition and the promise of PF2050.
For scientists in New Zealand – and he includes Tompkins in this – it has created an opportunity that has proved difficult to find in the wake of the Commission of Inquiry into genetic engineering 15 years ago.
“All that has opened the door to organisations that are quite pro-technology.”
In his view, clear and documented interests are important and an understanding on New Zealand’s part that its gets to choose whatever happens next.
There seems little sign of government moving to meet this nascent technology. The Ministry for the Environment – the regulatory body – in its strategy for the future said only that genetic engineering was an area expected to grow.
It would “continue to monitor the international developments of GM (including gene editing and the use of gene drive)”.
The greatest focus can be found in the NZ Conservation Authority’s briefing to new conservation minister Eugenie Sage in October. It listed its top five priorities, including ” “boosting control of pests of both flora and fauna and supporting the assessment of new technologies such as ‘gene drive'”.
James Russell, who met with Saah, is aware his rat-killing research could be of interest to foreign militaries.
But it’s the same technology he has used to keep islands around New Zealand free of predators.
“You look at the history of science. All the science seems scary when it’s just over the horizon.”
The sewing machine and steam engine – terrifying in their time, he says.
“I think it’s very human and natural to think gene editing at the level we are talking about now could be scary – just as it was when we looked at it 15 years ago.”
But we’ve had 15 years of GE science around the world and seen no disasters, he says.
That could signal a way forward using genetic technology to eradicate rodents for conservation purposes.
“We’re nuclear free New Zealand but we’re not saying ‘I don’t want to use radiation, I don’t want X-rays or I don’t want chemotherapy’.
“We like our radiation when it’s used in particular application but we don’t want nuclear bombs.
“Science is just science – it’s how people use it which is the problem.”