Gene gibbering

On 1 December the statesmen and -women of molecular biology will meet in Washington, DC, for a three-day international summit on human gene editing, sponsored by the US National Academy of Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the UK’s Royal Society. The meeting coincides with the publication of an open call for evidence to inform our own current genome editing project.

The Washington meeting is the latest, and perhaps the grandest, of a series of such meetings that have taken place since CRISPR-based genome editing systems seemingly re-wrote the future of life science research in just a few years, since their appearance in 2012. Their rapid uptake and diffusion has been accompanied by earnest and inreasingly anxious discussions about how we should think about this emerging technology, and the proper mode and limits of governance. From Manchester to Strasbourg, Cairo, Amsterdam, Stockholm and Washington, groups of scientists and fellow travellers have been recombining to elaborate an anticipatory political epistemology of genome editing. (I have written about some of these initiatives in previous posts on this blog.) The character of these meetings has evolved uncertainly to include researchers from outside the natural sciences, policy makers, industry and civil society actors. That knowledgeable and interested people are talking about the broader implications and governance of genome editing is important, but there are two things that I think should be borne in mind.

The first is that genome editing is both a tool for basic research and a technology that assembles knowledges, practices, products and applications. It is conditioned by scientific cultures, embedded in socio-historical context and shaped by visions of possible applications. This means that science and epistemology are not anterior to practice, but coextensive with it. That, in turn, has consequences for researchers, who cannot fail to be engaged with questions about the wider significance of their work, and for their research, which no longer belongs exclusively to them but must admit and respond to public interest. Much has been written about the need to bring discussion of genome editing into the public sphere in order to open up questions about the conditions of innovation and the public interest in how common challenges should be met. (We have argued elsewhere – Emerging biotechnologies, 2012 – that this public sphere should not consist only of politicians and elite advisers.) This recognition is important lest the summit, and meetings like it around the world, end up trying to drive a scientific roadmap through the thicket of moral, political and social questions that genome editing engages.

The second thing is that the questions raised by genome editing are far more numerous than the moral uncertainties about human applications and, in particular, germ line modification, that have got people most excited. They include applications in agriculture and food production, public health, industry, ecology, even geoengineering. (Reader, you may imagine the eruption of laughter just now when the mobile device on which I am typing offered to correct ‘geoengineering’ to ‘gene gibbering’.) Applications of genome editing in humans are by no means obviously the most proximate, least well regulated or most consequential of these areas, even for humans. Many of these other areas give rise to ‘public scale’ ethical questions of justice (social, global, intergenerational) and the distribution of risks and potential benefits, responsibility, and the collective response to multiple uncertainties. In this light, the preoccupation with human germ line applications may be distracting, even diversionary.

These two observations, taken together, explain why the Nuffield Council’s current project on genome editing has been deliberately circumspect. The first task we have set ourselves is to ask how we should think about these new technologies that have disturbed the functional architecture of our moral and regulatory categories. We have set out to examine what substantially new moral issues genome editing raises compared to previous technologies, and to assess the priority of the different questions raised. In our open call for evidence we are looking across the piece, from microorganisms, through plants and animals to humans, and also at a number of cross-cutting issues. If you have read this far, I would encourage you to respond.

We aim to publish our assessment of the nature and priority of the ethical issues in the first part of next year. Having done this, in the second part of our project we intend to come at genome editing from the other end, so to speak: our focus will not be on the technology and its implications, but on one or more of the societal challenges for which the technology opens up new and more complicated possibilities. How does genome editing help us to address the burden of neglected tropical diseases, for example, or extend the reproductive options of people who are at risk of passing on serious genetic diseases? And how should we value and respond to these possibilities, in the light of available or potential alternatives? In this second stage we hope to draw reasoned conclusions and make practical, normative recommendations in distinct areas of practice.

Find out more about our call for evidence.

Comments

  1. Genome editing offers the hope of a step change in human medical care, raising the possibility that serious genetic illnesses may be alleviated, perhaps even erased from the human condition. I look forward to following the debate with interest.

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