9 Out of 13 Members of New Biotech Committee Have Conflicts of Interest

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Of the 13 members recently chosen for a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine committee devoted to studying the biotech industry, nine appear to have conflicts of interest.

The committee was formed this year in order to advise the government on how to oversee new biotechnologies that may arise over the next 15 years.

“There’s often a lot riding on what the academies say, and so their ability to act with objectivity and independence defines any value they have,” Dr. Harvey Fineberg, a former leader of the medical division of the National Academies, told the New York Times.

Two members directly violate the group’s conflict of interest policy given their associations with other organizations: Dr. Steven Evans, a scientist at Dow AgroSciences, and Jeffrey Wolt, a professor at Iowa State University, which has investments in a company that could benefit from the study’s results.

The National Academies disclosed these conflicts of interest at the time of the committee's creation. William Kearney, a spokesman for the Academies, told the New York Times that while rare, conflicts of interest are tolerated when a scientist has a specialty that cannot be found elsewhere.

Other members with potential conflicts given their commercial interests in the biotech industry include Steven P. Bradbury, professor of environmental toxicology at Iowa State University and owner of Steven P. Bradbury & Associates, a consulting firm that advises companies on biotechnology; Farren Isaacs, co-founder of enEvolv, a firm that re-engineers microbes to create chemicals for industrial use; Richard M. Amasino, a patent holder for several biotechnology processes; and Richard Murray, co-founder of Synvitrobio, a synthetic biology startup.

In addition, five of the members, including Evans and Murray, are board members or advisory board members at the Engineering Biology Research Consortium (EBRC), a new biotech industry nonprofit. They were recommended for the committee by former National Academies employee Douglas Friedman, who was pursuing a job at the EBRC at the time.

The EBRC was born from the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC), a program with ten years of synthetic biology research that was at the heart of a safety and responsibility scandal in 2011.

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