Scientists are assuming the power of gods. Through CRISPR gene editing, they can — literally — change the nature of any cell and genetically alter every life form, including pathogens and eventually, the human germ line.
Yet, outside of scientific symposia, we are not having a meaningful discussion about whether and how to regulate what I believe to be the most powerful technology ever invented, and certainly the most portentous since the splitting of the atom.
Now, a commentary in Nature argues it is time for a “new kind of conversation” about all of this, what the authors Sheila Jasanoff and J. Benjamin Hurlbut call a “global observatory,” essentially an international heart-to-heart. From “A Global Observatory for Gene Editing” (my emphasis):
If successful, the observatory we propose would alter the way problems are framed and expand the idea of a “broad societal consensus”. In current bioethical debates, there is a tendency to fall back on the framings that those at the frontiers of research find most straightforward and digestible.
This move comes at great cost. If the ethical stakes of human germline genome editing are limited to questions of physical safety, for example, then the technical evaluation of particular biological endpoints (for instance, off-target effects) might offer sufficient answers. But such a focus short-circuits the central question of how to care for and value human life, individually, societally and in relation to other forms of life on Earth. Likewise, the goals of consensus must go beyond merely agreeing on whether particular applications of genome editing are acceptable or unacceptable.
Deliberation is insufficient if the conversation is too quickly boxed into judgements of the pros and cons, risks and benefits, the permissibility or impermissibility of germline genome editing, and so on. Such an approach neglects important background questions — who sits at the table, what questions and concerns are sidelined, and what power asymmetries are shaping the terms of debate.
When it comes to shaping the future of humanity, those neglected issues are just as important as the concerns of people poised to radically remake it. Indeed, consensus might even mean agreeing not to proceed with some research until a more equitable approach to setting the terms of debate is achieved.
Jasanoff and Hurlbut have launched a crucially important initiative. The authors conclude with a wise caveat:
Free enquiry, the lifeblood of science, does not mean untrammelled freedom to do anything. Society’s unwritten contract with science guarantees scientific autonomy in exchange for a research enterprise that is in the service of, and calibrated to, society’s diverse conceptions of the good. As the dark histories of eugenics and abusive research on human subjects remind us, it is at our peril that we leave the human future to be adjudicated in biotechnology’s own “ecclesiastical courts”.
It is time to invite in voices and concerns that are currently inaudible to those in centres of biological innovation, and to draw on the full richness of humanity’s moral imagination. An international, interdisciplinary observatory would be an important step in this direction
Yes! Every power sector needs enforceable checks and balances, and none in our history is as potentially powerful as biotechnology. Further neglect of this issue represents an abdication of leadership.
Photo credit: PhotoshopTofs, via Pixabay.
Cross-posted at The Corner.