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Tuesday, 13 February, 2001, 21:46 GMT
Italy's scientists demand GM freedom
Green Party supporters in Rome
Greens staged a counter demonstration against GM
By Frances Kennedy in Rome

More than a thousand Italian scientists and researchers have staged a protest rally in Rome against limitations on their right to research.

The demonstration was in response to a decision last year by the government to place a moratorium on research into genetically modified (GM) crops, but the scientists are also worried about the influence of the Church in limiting developments in biotechnology.

Controls always but limitations never on scientific research

Rita Levi Montalcini, Nobel scientist
The scientists believe that the current scare regarding BSE is fuelling uninformed and ideological resistance.

In response, the Italian Prime Minister, Giuliano Amato, has announced new guidelines for GM experimentation, but he warned the scientists not to allow their legitimate requests to be politically manipulated.

The theme of the scientists' protest was outlined by one of Italy's most respected figures, 94-year-old Rita Levi Montalcini, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1986.

"Controls always but limitations never", she said. As scientists, she added, they wanted to participate in the decision making process and not be victims of it.

Scientific Cinderella

Other speakers warned that Italy was making life so difficult for its scientists that it risked becoming the Cinderella of Europe, impoverished by an exodus of experts.

Rita Levi Montalcini
Rita Levi Montalcini and other leading scientists want more freedom for research

Silvio Garattini, director of a Milan pharmacological institute, said not only does Italy spend less than 1% of GDP on research, it restricts experiments unnecessarily.

According to Mr Garattini, the worst enemy is ideology. On one hand there is the environmentalist movement and the Green Party, on the other hand the Catholic parties, he said.

In Italy, research on stem cells of embryos is not permitted, largely because of opposition by the Vatican. And there are strict limits on any work on transgenic food.

Human stem cell
The Vatican fiercely opposes human stem cell research

Political cracks

The heated debate has revealed cracks in Italy's centre-left government, with general elections just few months away.

In a counter-demonstration, the Green Party, which is a member of the coalition government, argued that public health must come before anything else and accused the scientists of behaving like a caste of high priests.

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