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Estimates: Economics Legislation Committee: Jobs and Innovation Portfolio: Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Gene drive project (GBIRd)

Senator RHIANNON: I wanted to ask questions about the gene drive work that you're undertaking at the present time. How much is the CSIRO being funded by the US military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as part of the genetic biocontrol of invasive rodents?

Dr Marshall: I will bring up Dr Steele to address that.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. I'm referring, obviously, to the project to develop gene drive mice.

Dr Steele: I understand the project you're referring to, which has the acronym GBIRd. It's less than $100,000.

Senator RHIANNON: Less than $100,000?

Dr Steele: That was my answer, Senator.

Senator RHIANNON: Wasn't there a grant of $6.4 million that was split between CSIRO and various universities?

Dr Steele: The answer I have given you is the funds that are coming to CSIRO.

Senator RHIANNON: So that's $100,000 out of the $6.4 million?

Dr Steele: The correct answer.

Senator RHIANNON: Sorry, when you say 'correct answer', was the answer to my question yes?

Dr Steele: It's publicly on the record that a figure of more than $6 million—I believe that was US dollars—has been granted by a US government agency to a US university. CSIRO is a subcontractor for a small and specific part of that project, and my answer first was given.

Senator RHIANNON: So it's $100,000 of the $6 million plus.

Dr Steele: That's correct at this point in time.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you.

Dr Steele: Sorry, just to be clear, I said 'less than'.

Senator RHIANNON: Less than. I understand the GBIRd project is seeking funding from the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity. Is that correct?

Dr Steele: Are you referring to the US government entity called DARPA?

Senator RHIANNON: Well, there's DARPA and there's IARPA, I've found. DARPA we dealt with in the previous question. I understand you are seeking funding from the CIA via the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity. I'm trying to understand if that's correct.

Dr Steele: I guess your question is directed as to whether CSIRO understands that that's what's going on by the research collaborators. I'm not aware. I have not heard that mentioned to me in any way, shape or form. I have no reason to give any credence to the question.

Senator RHIANNON: It sounds like maybe it would be best if you took it on notice, because you're not actually ruling it out.

Dr Steele: I'm happy to take it on notice, but I would not want to mislead you at this point in time to give you the impression that I believe there is any credibility to it.

Senator RHIANNON: To be clear what's going on notice: how much funding has GBIRd sought from IARPA, and how much would be coming to CSIRO? Please detail what these funds are intended to be used for.

Dr Steele: Senator, the question I'm prepared to take on notice is: what is CSIRO's knowledge in relation to any of this?

Senator RHIANNON: I understand that we can ask questions and you take them on notice.

Dr Steele: Indeed, Senator, and that's what I'm doing. But I'm being clear about the fact that what we will answer is: what is CSIRO's knowledge?

Senator RHIANNON: Yes.

Dr Steele: Just to put that in context, this is a multicountry, multiparty collaboration, predominantly located in the US. I would not want to lead you to believe that CSIRO is a spokesperson and able to give you the full details of that. I'm very happy to be transparent about what we know.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you for clarifying that. Freedom of information documents reveal that CSIRO scientists have been—this is from one of the documents, on page 13 of the freedom of information document— 'spruiking the rodent gene drive technologies to various government agencies and other stakeholders'. Would you agree that CSIRO has a serious potential conflict of interest if it is promoting rodent gene drives whilst being tasked with conducting a risk assessment on them at the same time?

Dr Steele: I'm familiar with the background you're talking about. I believe that the question you have asked relates to the fact that least one CSIRO collaborator from offshore—in relation to a completely different project— asked the question as to whether or not the group in CSIRO which conducts risk assessments felt that there was a conflict of interest because other parts of CSIRO were involved in projects using the new technology called gene drive. That's the context in which this assertion that I have seen came up. And the response that was made by CSIRO to that other research collaborator made the point that the way in which we conduct our research in that particular area of CSIRO does not have any direct connection to any other part of CSIRO in relation to promoting gene drive technology. It is a part of CSIRO that conducts risk assessments—including, by the way, risk assessments about new technologies like gene drive technology and potential applications. And we maintain that part of CSIRO conducting its activity, in essence, in a Chinese-wall arrangement. But there is a second point to make here, which is that the use of this technology that has been talked about in projects like the GBIRd project is looking for new technologies to do projects that I'm going to describe to you, Senator, as basically being public-good projects. They are not fundamentally commercial in nature; they are to deliver things like new strategies to improve maintenance of the diversity of the bioflora et cetera. So it's true to say that it's possible to make assertions and make up a speculative argument as to whether or not there is a potential conflict of interest. Obviously, all of those things need to be addressed, both in the way in which we conduct research and also in the public debate about CSIRO's credibility. But it's so easy to make a slur, Senator, and we really need to be very careful about how we take the accusations that are made about CSIRO and explore them in depth. And that is what we do.

Senator RHIANNON: I don't think it is fair to say that it was a slur. I think the questions that I am asking are in keeping with the approach that I think you were just trying to develop there, that there needs to be transparency here. Clearly, there could be a belief that there is a conflict of interest when the regulator and the investigations are within the same body. I take how you've explained it, but I don't think it's fair to be saying that it's a slur. You use—

Dr Steele: If I can respond to that? Thank you. It is a very appropriate point to make. I wasn't saying that those particular assertions were a slur, but this is an area of quite a bit of animation. It is one of those situations where there are both well-considered thought patterns and also quite animated thought patterns, and all of those need to be addressed. One other point of clarification, on the way in which you described the last bit of your commentary: it's useful to remember that we are not actually the regulator at the end of the day. All of these activities are subject to independent regulation by other bodies, albeit ones who, on occasion, also take technical advice from research agencies, including CSIRO, universities et cetera. Senator RHIANNON: When you first started answering the question you spoke about another research collaborator. Were you referring then to the quote that I gave about spruiking the rodent gene drive? Are you suggesting that this comes from this other research collaborator?

Dr Steele: I was referring to the fact that questions as to whether or not there have been conflicts of interests were raised with CSIRO scientists, but they were raised by other research collaborators in other projects. The reason I talked about that was that the language in which you raised the question referenced FOI material. That is FOI material that has come out of US sources, and I'm pretty certain that is what you were referring to, Senator.

Senator RHIANNON: Just sticking with some of the FOI documents: they reveal that the GBIRd has identified six potential offshore islands in Western Australia for the potential release of gene drive mice. How many of these islands meet GBIRd's selection criteria of being closed to the public?

Dr Steele: I am familiar with them—but I admit that it's not since February that I have reread them—and I'm pretty certain I remember the references that you are referring to. I think a more accurate description of what the FOI material refers to is that it names approximately six islands, and I believe that they are off the coast of Western Australia, as islands to be looked at to see whether or not any of those were suitable islands for which there was, shall we say, the potential to be used as an experimental base. You've now asked a question as to whether or not any of those have been validated for the purpose of that, and I'm going to take that question on notice to the extent it is known by CSIRO. But I'm going to make the point that the FOI material was talking about exchanges with other Australian players, not just CSIRO, and I'm not at all certain in my mind, as I sit here now, that it's CSIRO who's doing the determination as to whether or not they qualify against the GBIRd criteria. I'm pretty certain that would be done in any case by agencies of the Western Australian government.

Senator RHIANNON: I was hoping you would be able to provide more information on this and that you wouldn't need to take it on notice, but I will take it a bit further. On page 34 of this FOI material, you get the impression, very clearly, that all islands are now about to be involved. So the question is: why did GBIRd decide to 'move forward on all six islands'? I understand that they don't actually meet the selection criteria.

Dr Steele: I have several comments in response. The first one is: my recollection of the amount of FOI material is that it was quite extensive. I appreciate and thank you for the help with page 34, but I'm marrying that up against a folder which was around about two inches thick in my brain. I go back to the answer I gave to the last question, which is to say that I'm not at all certain that we're in a position where the islands have been tested against the criteria that the GBIRd project collaboration had established for suitable islands, so I can't validate whether they've passed the test or not, which is an assumption that was in your question. And I'm not aware at all of any decision having been made to proceed with any specific island in relation to that.

Senator RHIANNON: Well, the quote that I shared with you would suggest otherwise, so, if you could provide details, it would be useful.

CHAIR: Senator Rhiannon, I am conscious of the time. Do you have many more questions? I did promise Senator Patrick that he could have a crack before the break, which was supposed to be a couple of minutes ago, but we can make it 9.15.

Senator RHIANNON: Can I have a couple more?

Senator PATRICK: Yes, I can come back after the break.

Senator RHIANNON: Okay, thank you, Senator Patrick. Has GBIRd established whether there are mice on Browse Island? To help your memory, on page 35 of this document it says they hadn't as of September last year, which is when that was reported. They didn't report there were any mice there then.

Dr Steele: What I'm going to take on notice, because I certainly can't answer a question that specific at this point in time, is whether or not CSIRO has any information that is relevant to the question that you've just asked.

Senator RHIANNON: To assist with that question and to inform the hearing, could you take on notice providing the survey report, the species list and the survey methodologies.

Dr Steele: With the same qualification I have just made, yes, I'll take the question on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: CSIRO has publicly stated: … if traditional methods are not feasible, such as the use of poison baits, are we willing to risk extinction of the seabirds? I was surprised to read that because it really sounded quite suggestive; the word 'manipulative' was mentioned to me, but I won't use that word. I'm a keen birdwatcher, particularly of marine bids. Maybe I'm wrong on this— maybe the mice are eating the birds' eggs, but what's the evidence CSIRO has that the mice are driving the seabirds towards extinction?

Dr Steele: Where are we talking about?

Senator RHIANNON: Still these islands off Western Australia.

Dr Steele: I'm going to take your question on notice, noting that the first question we will answer in our own minds, in attempting to respond, is whether or not we believe that the question has a foundation.

Senator RHIANNON: Did CSIRO instigate the Australian Academy of Science's report on gene drives?

Dr Steele: It is the case that some CSIRO scientists who are learned in their field have, together with other learned scientists in Australia, contributed to the development of the report on gene drive—actually, I don't remember whether it is a report on synthetic biology, but certainly it has a large component in relation to gene drive—that has been published recently by the Australian Academy of Science. I am not quite sure that I can satisfy you, one way or the other, about the verb that you have used in your question, Senator, but we certainly have scientists who were involved.

Senator RHIANNON: I understand that the three co-authors of the report worked directly for CSIRO on the GBIRd project. Why wasn't that mentioned in the report and the media release?

Dr Steele: There are several points of additional information here. It is certainly true that there were CSIRO scientists who contributed to the Academy of Science report. The way you phrased the question made it sound as though you thought all the authors of the academy report were from CSIRO and, further, that they were all involved in the GBIRd project. That is certainly not the case. The—

Senator RHIANNON: The question was: why wasn't it mentioned? Normally you would mention it.

Dr Steele: I am getting there. The release of the report was done by the Academy of Science. I have seen documentation that suggested that the nature of the publication of the report was something that some of our scientists who had been authors of the report knew was coming up. But, as best I know, as to the way in which it was actually communicated that the report was being put out, that was done by the Academy of Science. I don't know that I can give you an answer to your question, because it was done by the academy.

Senator RHIANNON: Who funded the report?

Dr Steele: The Academy of Science report would have been funded by the Academy of Science.

Senator RHIANNON: You are confident of that, you don't need to take it on notice?

Dr Steele: No. I'm quite happy with that answer.

Senator RHIANNON: From 11 to 15 September last year CSIRO co-hosted a conference aimed at 'identifying synthetic biology solutions to conservation problems caused by environmental change'. Who funded that conference?

Dr Steele: As with other activities that CSIRO conducts from time to time, when we conduct scientific conferences there is usually funding from CSIRO involved in that. I can't tell you whether there were any other funding sources involved but certainly there would have been CSIRO support for it.

Senator RHIANNON: The emphasis is on solutions to conservation problems caused by environmental change. It is widely recognised that the drivers of ecological system collapse and species extinction are land-clearing and the overexploitation of native wildlife. Were those issues discussed at the conference?

Dr Steele: I wasn't at the conference. The best I can do for you is see if we can find a copy of the agenda or any proceedings that came out of the conference. I am not aware that there was any publication of the proceedings of the conference. I will take on notice whether there are any documents to give you any indication.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. How much was spent on that conference?

Dr Steele: I will take on notice—

Senator RHIANNON: Could you just take the question on notice.

Dr Steele: Senator, stay with me for a moment please. I will take on notice finding out whether there is any separate identification of the cost of the conference. If we can find that information, I am happy to do that.

Senator RHIANNON: According to other FOI documents, CSIRO ran a gene drive workshop followed by a regulatory meeting on July 26. Who attended the regulatory meeting?

Dr Steele: When you say 'regulatory meeting' what are you referring to?

Senator RHIANNON: I am just going on what was in the FOI documents, and it was described in that way. I am assuming it is a meeting about regulations for these new developments that CSIRO is working on.

Dr Steele: If you are prepared to identify the specific document out of the US FOI that is being referred to there—not necessarily now; I am happy if you provide that to the secretary of the committee later—we will see what we can find out in answer to that question on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: I do think I gave you enough information, because you haven't denied that there was a gene drive workshop last year followed by a regulatory meeting. I'm just asking for details of that and who attended that second meeting.

Dr Steele: I was actually looking for any further particulars that you could give me, just to make sure I was answering precisely the question you are asking.

Senator RHIANNON: I am still asking for it on notice. Could you also take on notice what the agenda of the meeting was.

Dr Steele: To the extent that I'm able to confirm to myself that I've identified the correct meeting, I'm certainly happy to answer that question on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: And also the minutes from the meeting. I am asking for that because—you use the words 'slur' et cetera; I am not an enemy here—transparency is incredibly important. There is angst among the public about this. That's why we're getting queries about it and I need to ask the question. I think transparency is so important.

Dr Steele: I absolutely agree with your point. Just to be clear: the public debate about this is both informed and uninformed, which does add to the importance of transparency, clarity and public debate about it on wellformed facts. I am very happy to provide answers to these questions that way. But my point is that it is a constructive dialogue when it is factually based and there is some willingness among the dialogue parties to actually accept that there could be a number of different perspectives taken.

Senator RHIANNON: Has CSIRO already commenced research developing gene drive mosquitoes?

Dr Steele: I will take that question on notice. I am not aware that we have, but I am very happy to correct the record if it turns out that we have.

Senator RHIANNON: I understand that you have notified the OGTR that you have. But I forgot to look up OGTR, so I will have to end it there.

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