Lise Meitner: “A Physicist Who Never Lost Her Humanity”

The editorial De Gruyter has published an excerpt from the ALLEA book “Women in European Academies: From Patronae Scientiarum to Path-Breakers”. The article is part of the chapter on Lise Meitner, written by Doris A. Corradini, Katja Geiger and Brigitte Mazohl and dedicated to the scientist, the first female member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OEAW). The full article, including full references, can be found here. We reproduce parts of the contents, which can be read on their blog DG Conversations.

Against all odds, Austrian-born Lise Meitner devoted her life to a career in nuclear physics. On the occasion of the UN International Day of
Women and Girls in Science, we look back on the achievements of a brilliant woman who many believe was once robbed of the Nobel Prize.

“It brings me great pleasure that with the election of your person in particular, esteemed Professor, the first woman has been elected to the ranks of the Academy’s membership since its founding.” The president of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW), Heinrich Ficker, wrote these words of congratulation in a letter dated 9 June 1948 to Lise Meitner, a physicist already famous beyond Austria’s borders, on her election to Corresponding Member Abroad for the Division of Mathematics and the Natural Sciences.

Lise Meitner was indeed the first female member of the Academy, which had been founded in 1847. As a woman and a Jew she was elected into an academy whose membership only three years prior had consisted of many members of the National Socialist party (NSDAP) (approximately 50%) and which had not significantly changed its composition since the NSDAP had been outlawed in 1945. In 1949, the same honour of being elected the first female member was conferred on her at the German Academy of Sciences in Berlin. A few years previously she had been elected to the Academies in Stockholm, Gothenburg, Copenhagen and Oslo. In 1955, she was named an External Member of the Royal Society, an honour that meant a great deal to her, and in 1960 this was followed by her election to membership of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The grounds for Meitner’s election to the ÖAW were her fundamental research in the field of nuclear physics and her contribution to the study of nuclear fission. While in exile in Sweden over the New Year 1938/39, she had succeeded in explaining the physics behind the puzzling results of an experiment performed by her former Berlin colleagues Otto Hahn and Fritz Straßmann. When uranium was irradiated with neutrons, the radiochemical analysis revealed traces of the element barium. This indicated that the uranium atom had ‘split’ into lighter fragments, a result which the two chemists were unable to explain. Lise Meitner, together with her nephew Otto Robert Frisch, interpreted the reaction as nuclear fission and calculated the huge quantity of energy released in the process. Nevertheless, in 1946 Otto Hahn was the sole recipient of the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for his discovery of the fission of heavy nuclei”.

That Lise Meitner’s involvement in this epoch-making scientific breakthrough was crucial, and yet recognition for it went instead to Hahn, can be considered a prime example of the lack of acknowledgement and visibility granted to women in science. It is particularly striking because Lise Meitner was nominated for the Nobel Prize a total of 48 times by colleagues – without success. That she went empty-handed in 1946 has been cited by the science historian Margaret W. Rossiter as paradigmatic of the unequal distribution of fame between women and their male colleagues. At one point Rossiter considered naming this phenomenon the ‘Lise Effect’, but instead decided on the ‘Matilda Effect’ – now the conventional term in the history of science – after Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826–1898), an American feminist and early sociologist of knowledge.


Read the full article here.

“Younger women need role models in order to develop ambition and stamina”

Today, the UN celebrates women and girls in scienceEducation, research and academia in general were traditionally male-dominated and there is still a need for change before we can describe the field as gender neutral or equal. Academia today is not only lacking in women, but diversity in general. Yet, while we look forward at how we can tackle current obstacles, it is also important to look back in history and see how the role of women in science has changed over the last centuries.  

At the end of 2020, ALLEA published the third book in its series Discourses on Intellectual Europe Women in European Academies: From Patronae Scientiarum to Path-Breakers. This volume shares the stories of thirteen women whose names have made a mark on academies in Europe. To take a closer look, we had the chance to ask historian Prof. Ute FrevertManaging Director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, author, and one of the editors of this book some questions. 


Question: In editing “Women in European Academies”, what did you learn or notice most commonly about the roles of women over the different countries and different disciplines? 

Ute Frevert: It was quite remarkable (and distressing) to see how all over Europe, the academic world in every discipline has been reluctant and adversarial to accepting female scholars and scientists. This lasted way into the 20th century, and the arguments that buttressed male monopolies were very similar. At the same time, individual women were extremely smart in moving around such obstacles, with passiontenacityand, all too rarely, with the help of progressive parents, friends, and husbands.     

Q.: Examining academia today, there are more women with on average better higher education degrees in Europe. Still, much fewer than men consider or achieve a career in academia. What changes have you been able to see in your career? 

U.T.: I have been socialized in the feminist movement of the 1970s, and since then we have definitely seen some success and progress. Yet, progress is far too slow, compared to the efforts made and the large number of qualified women who would love to pursue an academic career. Among doctoral students, the gender ratio is more or less balanced now. But we still see very few women in top positions.  

Q.: If asked why women belong in academia, why or how they can make a unique contribution, what would you say?  

U.T.: Honestly speaking, women do not have to make a unique contribution. They belong in academia as much as men do, just because they are both human beings with smart brains. So, in principle, there is no need to further justify women’s place in academia. In real life, however, women often have to be better, more innovative and original than men in order to make it.   

Q.: As an expert on emotions and history, what changes do you consider most relevant to these trends and emerging discourses on masculinity and feminism in society? 

U.T.: From a historical perspective, first- and second-wave feminism was important because they challenged and finally altered the categories applying to male versus female bodies, brains, and behaviour. They questioned the long-held notion of separate spheres, and they empowered women to move on. Becoming mentally more independent, women developed pride as well as self-confidence – which are essential prerequisites for any career.    

Q.: Looking forward, what would you like the role of women look like in academia? 

U.T.: I would like to see many more women in top positions, as full professors, research group leaders, institute directors, and presidents of academies. Younger women need role models in order to develop ambition and stamina. At the same time, being a role model does not come easy, because of complex expectations. While men just have to excel academically, women at the top are supposed to be excellent in many more matters. They have to show emotional skills like “feminine” empathy, kindness, understanding in personal relationships. They have to be accessible for all kinds of problems. Having a family proves that they lead a full life and know about motherly and wifely commitment – something that is never requested from her male colleagues. Such gendered expectations are very hard to meet and can result in mutual frustration.             


Prof. Ute Frevert is Director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin. Before joining the Institute in 2008, she taught modern history at the Universities of Berlin (FU), Konstanz, Bielefeld and Yale (USA). Her publications include: Women in German History (1989); Men of Honour: A Social and Cultural History of the Duel (1995);  A Nation in Barracks: Modern Germany, Military Conscription, and Civil Society (2004); Emotions in History – Lost and Found (2013); The Politics of Humiliation: A Modern History (2020).

Learn more about ALLEA’s book Women in European Academies: From Patronae Scientiarum to Path-Breakers and the series Discourses on Intellectual Europe.

History and Future of Knowledge – Interview With ALLEA President

How is the nature of knowledge changing? What is the impact of the digital revolution on the roles of universities, academies and science advisors? Is the democratisation of knowledge always a good thing?

Professor Antonio Loprieno, ALLEA President, discusses these questions with Toby Wardman of SAPEA. They also discuss how to digitally unwrap an Egyptian mummy, whether there is such a thing as objective truth, and how loudly Toby can scream when his audio is muted.

Listen now

“Inoculating people against being manipulated will be crucial”

What are the main approaches to win the fight against misinformation? And how do the fact-checking methods applied by social media platforms affect the actual spread of conspiracy myths? Stephan Lewandowsky, professor of cognitive science at the University of Bristol and member of the ALLEA scientific committee Fact or Fake?, gives an insight into current research on trust in science and why it is essential to foster deliberative communication formats.

Question: Mr. Lewandowsky, conspiracy myths and misinformation are not really a new thing. However, they are currently making headlines again. Are we really experiencing a rise in misinformation during the pandemic?

S. L.: I don’t know of an evidence-based answer to this question as I do not have data on the quantity of misinformation and conspiracy myths. What we do know is that people’s trust in science and research has increased in response to the corona pandemic. On that we do have data from different European countries like Germany or the U.K. as well as the US. In Germany for example the science barometer by Wissenschaft im Dialog (Science in Dialogue) showed a dramatic increase in trust to over 70 per cent in April. That has been accompanied by a vastly smaller number of people who have gone the other way and have been swept up in the toxic brew of covid denialism and anti vaccination movements. I think these are the developments we have, based on the data.

We also see that the media is paying a lot of attention to conspiracy myths and misinformation and while it is important to do so, at the same time, by talking about it a lot, you are enhancing the prevalence of misinformation as well. So that is something to watch.

“(A rise of trust in science) has been accompanied by a vastly smaller number of people who have gone the other way and have been swept up in the toxic brew of covid denialism and anti vaccination movements.”

Q.: Why are pandemics a good breeding ground for conspiracy myths?

S. L.: Pandemics are always a trigger for conspiracy myths and that has been true throughout history. People are frightened, their sense of control over their lives is disrupted and whenever that happens, people are drawn towards conspiracies. Psychologically, people seek comfort in the assumption that evil people are responsible for bad things that are happening because there is potential for the world to be better. If you have an enemy that is responsible for bad things, you can pretend that things would be better if they were not there. Accepting that a virus is responsible is something that is out of control. That is frightening and that is why these times are breeding times for conspiracy myths.

Q.: In Germany we are currently seeing protests against measures the government has taken. In how far are they due to uncertainty when introducing measures, especially with regards to the introduction of masks?

S. L.: Most Germans actually think that the government is doing a good job with the measures. So once again we should not pay too much attention to the minority of protesters. Corresponding to that we see a decline in support for the AfD because they do not offer any solutions for the problems at hand. I think we have to be careful not to exaggerate the uncertainties that existed. Social distancing for example was never doubted as an effective measure against the pandemic and even though there was uncertainty about masks, a lot of scientific advice was actually quite consistent. Of course it would have been nice, if the science on masks had been available more quickly but I do not think uncertainty was a trigger for conspiracy myths in this case.

Q.: If trust is rising, why should we still care about fighting conspiracy myths? 

S. L.: The mere exposure to conspiracy myths can potentially reduce people’s trust in official institutions and is inducing people to become disengaged with politics. So the mere exposure has adverse consequences and that’s not talking about the people who believe in them. Secondly, we have data showing that the people who believe in conspiracy myths are less likely to comply with social distancing measures. So there is an association between not doing what you are supposed to do and believing in conspiracy myths. We do not know if there is a causal relationship but we know there is an association. The final thing is that ultimately conspiracy theorists are more prone to violence than others and are more likely to endorse violence as a means to resolve conflicts. So there are a number of reasons why we should be concerned about them and why we need to tackle the problem at hand.

“We do know that it is better to inoculate people before they are exposed to conspiracy myths than to fight them after they are spread.” 

Q.: What are the main approaches to win the fight against misinformation?

S. L.: First of all we do know that it is better to inoculate people before they are exposed to conspiracy myths than to fight them after they are spread. Ideally what could have been done right in the beginning of the pandemic would have been to communicate up front not only what we know about the virus but also what might happen during the pandemic with regards to conspiracy myths developing. There is evidence that shows that telling people how they will be misled is actually beneficial to building up resistance. On a societal level the moment to do so has passed, but we can still do it with new disinformation that may come along.

The second thing is, that you can correct things and you can get through to people who are spreading conspiracal narratives and it has been shown that not all people are completely resistant to correction. Sometimes the narratives are just used as a rhetorical device and for that group of people corrections can work and are a good device. For hard core conspiracy theorists where the myths have become part of their identity, that is not the case and talking them out of them is very difficult.

If (scientists) communicate well and explain things online and offline, they can be an asset in the fight against misinformation. The same is true for physicians who are very influential and can play a large role. I think by now most scientists – especially younger ones – are very capable of communicating well and know how to use social media well.”  

Q.: What can scientists themselves do to combat fake news?

S. L.: A lot. Scientists are among the most trusted people in most societies including Germany. If they communicate well and explain things online and offline, they can be an asset in the fight against misinformation. The same is true for physicians who are very influential and can play a large role. I think by now most scientists – especially younger ones – are very capable of communicating well and know how to use social media well.

“Algorithms should not draw attention to outrage and myths and that is something we have to tackle and deal with.” 

Q.: Some of the social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter have started introducing fact checking. What is your opinion on those?

S. L.: I do not think there is a single magical silver bullet to the problem. We instead need to add up different measures and put them together to solve the issue. Labeling – if done correctly – can be very effective. What Twitter is doing is OKish but not good enough. What Facebook has done with Covid misinformation has been much better because they put an opaque banner on them that hid the headline so that you could not see it at first glance. That is much more effective than the little button twitter put underneath the information. To be effective you have to introduce friction that prevents access to the information that is critical. Not totally of course because that is censorship, but sufficiently so that it causes friction. The Facebook manipulation cut sharing of misinformation by 95 per cent which is very good and that shows that labeling can work, if it is done right.

But even before you get there what really needs to be done and needs to be discussed are the algorithms of the platform. Nothing you see on Facebook or Twitter is there accidentally but is put there by the algorithms. Those algorithms are often guiding users to extremist content and even though the platforms knew that they did not do anything against it because they were afraid that it would cut into their revenue. We therefore have to take a close look at the information diet that is created to us and we have to make them accountable for their activities. This is not about censorship but about mandating information and about holding platforms accountable. Algorithms should not draw attention to outrage and myths and that is something we have to tackle and deal with.

Q.: How likely do you think it is that this will happen sooner than later?

S. L.: In the United States we are probably not going to get there any time soon. In Europe chances are much higher. The European Union will be taking action and I have written an in depth report for them and hopefully they will use some of those ideas when it comes to introducing regulations.

“Dialogue can be successful and positive in formats that focus on deliberation, on sharing data and on moderated debates in which people can participate.”

Q.: What would a good online discourse look like?

S. L.:  Dialogue can be successful and positive in formats that focus on deliberation, on sharing data and on moderated debates in which people can participate. That is something we are not finding online at the moment but we know it works from deliberative assemblies like those in Ireland which debated topics like abortion and gay marriage. Topics with the potential to tear a country apart but that did not happen because they were led successfully. There is evidence that this can work online as well if you design spaces in which this can work. The moment you create those spaces and make them work you move away from the terribly polluted spaces that we are currently having.

Q.: One topic people are currently worried about is vaccinations and trust in vaccines. Are you worried that this will be a huge breeding ground for conspiracy myths?

S. L.: It depends on the country you are talking about. I am worried about the situation in the U.K. because the government has not exactly a good track record in managing the pandemic and thus it is very likely to be problematic. In Germany I think it is much more likely to work well. Countries like Germany, New Zealand or Australia with well-functioning governments acting in the interest of the people will be able to deal with the situation well. What is crucial is to make the vaccine easily available and to make uptake easy. I don’t think we will be facing insurmountable problems especially if you make it mandatory to be vaccinated to be able to take part in certain activities we will be fine. Once again, inoculating people against being manipulated will be crucial and we should be planning those campaigns right about now.


Stephan Lewandowsky is professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Bristol. His research examines people’s memory, decision making, and knowledge structures, with a particular emphasis on how people update their memories if information they believe turn out to be false. This has led him to examine the persistence of misinformation and spread of “fake news” in society, including conspiracy theories.

He will speak at the session “Disinformation, Narratives and the Manipulation of Reality“ organized by ALLEA at the International Forum on Digital and Democracy on the 10th and the 11th of December. The session will present some of the findings of the JRC Report on Technology and Democracy: Understanding the influence of online technologies on political behaviour and decision-making by Stephan Lewandowsky and Laura Smillie.

This interview was conducted by Rebecca Winkels and was first published on the Wissenschaftskommunikation’s website. Credit picture: Stephan Lewandowsky. 

Climate Change Education Webinar

On 24 November, ALLEA and the Royal Irish Academy, held a webinar entitled “Can Climate Change Education save the planet? European perspectives” to address the role and importance of climate change education within both the European and the Irish context.

If you missed it, now you have an opportunity to watch the recording on YouTube:

Key speakers at the webinar included:

  • Dr Cliona Murphy, Dublin City University and ALLEA Science Education Working Group Chair
  • Professor Paweł Rowiński, Vice-President of the Polish Academy of Sciences and ALLEA Board Member
  • Dr Philippe Tulkens, acting Head of the Climate and Planetary Boundaries Unit in Directorate “Healthy Planet” of the European Commission
  • Professor Pierre Léna, Emeritus Professor at the Université Paris-Diderot
  • Dr Agata Gozdzik, Head of the Science Communication and Education Unit, Polish Academy of Sciences
  • Dr Michael John O’Mahony, Director of Environmental Education Unit, An Taisce – The National Trust for Ireland

Science Does Not Have a Passport

A commentary by the ALLEA President

It has now been more than 4 years since the decision by the people of the United Kingdom to depart from the European Union. The European research community was united in shock upon receiving the results of the plebiscite and has since, with many voices and on many occasions, raised concerns that scientific collaboration should be looked at as a global concern rather than a political negotiation piece. Scientists are by nature revelling in discourse and disagreement, yet for once we all shared the same sentiment: we are better off together.

In fact, not only are we better off together, after more than 60 years of growing ever closer, of researchers moving about freely across the continent, of multinational research consortia spearheading most innovative scientific breakthroughs, it is inconceivable to disentangle the many co-operations that exist on so many levels across European academia. And even if we were able to do so, the price to pay would be diminished quality of research, something that we can all agree on would be a step in the wrong direction.

It now seems that at long last, the negotiations on the UK departure from the EU are coming to a close. What started as uncertainty on the conditions of future research association of the UK to the EU is now turning into tense anxiety as firm commitments still go amiss and researchers on both sides of the English Channel fear their tried and trusted collaborations with their partners may soon come to a premature end.

Throughout the process ALLEA has continuously reminded decision-makers on both sides of the table that scientific research must not be used as a pawn in political tit-for-tat. In doing so we did not tire to remind them that partnerships are difficult to build, but easy to destroy. At the moment, we are running the danger of doing the latter without any regard on how to rebuild them after.

As if we needed any more reminders of the vital necessity of international research collaboration, this year’s COVID-19 pandemic has made this point ever more pressing. By giving up on long-established and well-functioning research collaboration mechanisms we risk being worse prepared than better prepared for the global challenges to come, COVID-19 was certainly not the last of them.

ALLEA therefore can only reaffirm its call, which we share with our UK Member Academies, to ensure the highest degree of participation of UK research institutions in EU research framework programmes. As a Swiss myself, I know all too well what it feels like to be in a limbo when it comes to the relationship with the EU. But precisely for this reason I do know that Switzerland benefits from being part of the European scientific area much more than any perceived or real loss of sovereignty could take away from.

The scientific endeavour inherently does not have a passport, it is a truly global citizen and it would be a shame to restrict its abilities for the purposes of political negotiations. It is therefore my urgent call to everyone involved to let common sense prevail, to show reciprocal trust and to ensure that we can wake up in 2021 knowing that our colleagues and partners from yesterday will still be our colleagues and partners tomorrow.

Antonio Loprieno

ALLEA President

ALLEA Webinar on Cultural Memories & Nationalist Sentiments – Recording Is Online

On 5 November, cultural historian Joep Leerssen and Laura Hood of The Conversation discussed why and how national cultures obstruct European politics.

Joep Leerssen, 2020 Laureate of the ALLEA Madame de Staël Prize for Cultural Values, is one of the most remarkable figures in the critical analysis of ethnic and cultural stereotyping. In this conversation with Laura Hood, he gave insights into image shifts and trends of European identities.

The event was organised as a part of the Berlin Science Week 2020.

The Madame de Stael Prize for Cultural Values is awarded by ALLEA, the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities, jointly with the foundation Compagnia di San Paolo as major supporter.


New PERITIA Video: Why Trust Experts?

Our EU-funded research project PERITIA has launched a new animation video, “Why Trust Experts?“. Inspired by their principal investigator Maria Baghramian’s article “Trust in Experts: Why and Why Not”, the video invites everyone to reflect on the role of expertise in our daily lives.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown once again that experts play a key role in advising politicians and citizens. There may be no better time to ask ourselves some relevant questions about trust in expertise.

  • How does trust in experts work?
  • How is trust in science related to trust in media?
  • Why is trust in expertise important for democracies?
  • How can we learn to trust trustworthy experts?

The short animation video summarizes the key questions of PERITIA’s research in the context of today’s pandemic crisis and raises some relevant points. It touches upon the different dimensions of trust in expertise from a philosophical perspective, the influential role of media (and social media) in how we access scientific information, or the difficult balance between science independence and policymaking.

In the dedicated webpage “Why trust Experts?“, PERITIA delves into these key questions including resources. The page is available to help you learn more about the topic and find more scientific contributions to the debates from the team and their partners.


PERITIA is a Horizon 2020-funded research project exploring the conditions under which people trust expertise used for shaping public policy. The project brings together philosophers, social and natural scientists, policy experts, ethicists, psychologists, media specialists and civil society organisations to conduct a comprehensive multi-disciplinary investigation of trust in and the trustworthiness of policy related expert opinion. As part of consortium of 11 partners from 9 countries, ALLEA leads the work on public engament and interaction of the project.

Five Questions About Genome Editing for Crop Improvement


Dr Oana Dima, one of the lead authors of the ALLEA Report “Genome Editing for Crop Improvement”, responds to five key questions about the science behind new plant breeding techniques, from its applications to the impact of the current policy and legal impasse. 


Question: The introduction of CRISPR-Cas in plant breeding is opening up new approaches for crop improvement. Where do you think it is most effectively employed? 

Oana Dima: Europe harbours leading research centres, providing cutting-edge technologies to drive scientific innovation. In less than 10 years, we experienced a breakthrough in biotechnology with the development of genome editing by top researchers. Currently, genome editing with CRISPR-Cas is used by almost every biotechnology research group in the world in their daily research and the number of scientific reports published by research institutes is increasing exponentially. Earlier this month (October 2020) Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the development of the CRISPR-Cas method for genome editing. This illustrates how fundamental research with a touch of creativity can lead to new, exciting applications to help society and our planet. The highest recognition is crucial for further development and application of genome editing not only in medicine but also in agriculture and food production, which must become more sustainable in a world facing an increasing world population, climate change, and environmental degradation.  


 Q.: How did the ruling of the Court of Justice of the EU of 2018, placing genome-edited plant breeding under the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) Directive, impact on the scientific and technological development of these techniques in Europe? 

O.D.: ALLEA (All European Academies) in collaboration with the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts (Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie van België voor Wetenschappen en Kunsten, KVAB), organised a symposium about plant genome editing that took place in Brusselsin November 2019. 

The ALLEA-KVAB symposium followed up on the concerns and criticisms voiced by large parts of the scientific community in response to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) decision of 25 July 2018, interpreted by the European authorities that organisms produced by mutagenesis techniques, such as genome editing with CRISPR, should be considered as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) within the meaning of the GMO Directive 2001/18.  

The scientific community has voiced concerns that substantially restricting the possibility of utilising genome editing by applying the GMO legislation will have considerable negative consequences for agriculture, society and economy. More specifically, the development of beneficial crop varieties in a faster and much more directed way thanks to genome editing is halted in Europe, while the rest of the world embraces the technology.  

The scientific community has voiced concerns that substantially restricting the possibility of utilising genome editing by applying the GMO legislation will have considerable negative consequences for agriculture, society and economy.

In response to the ECJ judgment, the EU-SAGE (European Sustainable Agriculture through Genome Editing) network was launched, which gathers scientists from 133 European research institutes and associations, from 21 different Member States, the UK and Norway and aims to provide information about genome editing and to promote the development of European and EU member state policies that enable the use of genome editing for sustainable agriculture and food production. Scientists representing the EU-SAGE network, are convinced that Europe needs to support innovative plant breeding through genome editing and strongly argue that enabling genome editing in future policies should be based on the best possible scientific knowledge and experience. 

Q.: Safety is a major concern of the public when it comes to agricultural food production, and subsequently the use of genome-editing. Where do we stand on the safety of genome-edited plants? How likely is that this evidence may change in the future? 

O.D.: The ALLEA-KVAB symposium aimed at providing an overview of the scientific evidence with respect to safety of genomeedited crops and their possible potential to provide solutions to current and future agricultural problems. 

The use of a particular technology should not determine whether or not a certain crop is safe, but the introduced characteristics should determine its safety. With the use of genome editing, plant breeding becomes much more knowledge based. Plant breeding thereby transitions from a sometimes blind or random approach to a much more targeted and precise approach. Genome editing reduces the amount of uncertainties, which contributes to safety. Genome-edited crops with DNA changes that can as well spontaneously occur in nature or result from other breeding methods are considered to be generally as safe as crops with the same DNA changes obtained through conventional methods. In my opinion, a genome-edited crop with a specific change in the DNA is as safe as a conventional crop containing the same DNA change. 

From a scientific point of view, it is important to highlight that scientists aim to further improve the predictability of genome editing, although this can be wrongly interpreted and perceived by the public as unsafe.

From a scientific point of view, it is important to highlight that scientists aim to further improve the predictability of genome editing, although this can be wrongly interpreted and perceived by the public as unsafe. There is a limited chance that genome editing results in unintended DNA changes. However, scientists are continuously working on improvements of genome editing to raise the specificity of the technology to a very high level. Even in the case of an unintended DNA change as a result of genome editing, this change can be removed through crossing or selection, which is a standard practice in the plant breeding process for the improvement of any crop 


Q.: The report calls for an open, honest dialogue with all stakeholders, including the public, in the decision-making processes for introducing genome-edited products into the market. Do you have examples in mind of how the dialogue with public could take place? 

O.D.: In regard to the ongoing discussion on genome editing, it is important to clarify what aspect of the technology is being discussed. When decisions are taken based on claims different from scientific evidence, then it should be clearly communicated for transparency reasons. For this purpose, it is important to disentangle the facts and the values, although it can be difficult. In order to change parts of the public’s negative perceptions of food produced from genome-edited crops, it is necessary to increase the global understanding of the complexity of the food production systems. A large part of the public is generally not aware of the role of technological innovations in agriculture to contribute to economic and social wellbeing and that progress in agriculture will help us to better cope with climate adversities. 

The agricultural system is a fundamentally man-made and artificial system, not a natural ecosystem and as such does not follow the laws of natural evolution but those of man-made selection.

A romanticised vision of agriculture is present in many European countries as a result of a distorted understanding of the agricultural system. The agricultural system is a fundamentally man-made and artificial system, not a natural ecosystem and as such does not follow the laws of natural evolution but those of man-made selection. The agricultural environment changes much faster than a natural environment would and the cultivated varieties must continually adapt to new growth conditions and new threats. This makes it necessary to continuously select new varieties. To make consumers aware, it is important to communicate the role of technological innovations in agriculture through evocative narratives instead of explaining the technicalities and possibilities of the technology itself. For example, genome editing has the potential to protect regional food traditions and to favour diversification. 


Q.: What is your vision for the future of this technology? Where will we be in a few years from a technological point of view, where could we realistically see its application, and how will the public discourse evolve? 

O.D.: The recently published Green Deal of the European Commission stated, within the context of the ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy, that the EU needs to develop innovative ways to reduce dependency on pesticides and fertilizers and reverse biodiversity loss while at the same time provide society with sufficient, nutritious, sustainable and affordable food.  

Setting the targets is not enough, we also need tools to help achieve these targets. All possible approaches, including innovative plant breeding technologies, are required to address these challenges and to achieve the ambitious goals of the Farm to Fork strategy. The most recent addition to the toolbox to develop new crop varieties is precision breeding with genome editing. This technology has far-reaching applications such as increasing the diversity of crops, the reduction of pesticides, the further development of healthy food, and many more. 

The European Union is missing out on innovative plant breeding through genome editing because the lack of fit-for-purpose legislation and if left unchanged, it will have dramatic consequences for Europe.

The European Union is missing out on innovative plant breeding through genome editing because the lack of fit-for-purpose legislation and if left unchanged, it will have dramatic consequences for Europe. Crop improvement through genome editing has enormous potential to help achieve the SDGs of the United Nations and the Green Deal of the EU, to feed the world of tomorrow, and aid in overcoming the perils on food production of climate change and environmental degradation. We are at a breaking point in Europe, which will determine how we will be able to transform our agricultural systems to build a greener future. 


Read the report here.

Everything you wanted to ask about science advice #AskRolf

Professor Heuer is the Chair of the European Commission’s Group of Chief Scientific Advisors which provides independent and high quality scientific advice to the College of European Commissioners, and an experimental particle physicist. Before joining the Group of Advisors, he was CERN Director-General until December 2015.

On 3 November at 11:00, Professor Heuer will answer your questions and discuss with you how to make politicians listen and understand science and why it is important live on YouTube.