Everyone knows IPCC, the forum created under the auspices of the United Nations to review the state of knowledge on climate change, draw scenarios on its impact, and compare alternative policies. Does the world need a similar body for the biotech revolution ahead, as claimed by Sheila Jasanoff and J. Benjamin Hurlbut in Nature? Is a Global Observatory on Gene Editing the solution to our CRISPR troubles? We asked a pioneer of gene therapy and a pioneer of gene drives, but also a bioethicist, a political scientist, a social psychologist, a science historian.
Everyone agrees that it is essential to enrich and democratize the debate on the acceptability and ethical-social implications of genome editing. But the desire to promote exchange across disciplinary and cultural divides is not immune to doubts. Somebody speculates that science could use such an observatory to colonize different disciplines. Others, on the contrary, fear that the proposal is imbued with mistrust in science. “Broad conversation is welcome, and every effort to adapt political and economic structures so that technological advances reduce inequality is welcome,” says Alta Charo, an influential bioethicist from the University of Wisconsin. But then comes the caveat. “If the goal is to slow or halt scientific research and technological development for fear of disrupting existing cultural, religious or familial norms, then it is a loss to us all. Change is not only inevitable, it is the essence of our humanity,” she argues.
According to Jasanoff and Hurlbut, the conversation usually originates from scientific research agendas, with science and ethics missing the opportunity to engage substantively with each other. Scientists explain what genome editing will be able to do in the near term, whereas other scholars address societal questions. The observatory mission, however, would be to put society first, by discussing how the potential of science can be better steered by the values and priorities of people. This approach worries Luigi Naldini, from the San Raffaele-Telethon Institute for Gene Therapy, who contributed to the guidelines of the US Academies of sciences. Objectively distinguishing real risks from sci-fi scenarios is a major guarantee when debating on the web in the fake news era, he states. “The proposal for a global observatory is a sweet utopia with the bitter aftertaste of ideology.” The risk, according to Naldini, is to leave too much room for extreme and anti-scientific views, as in the case of vaccines or GMOs.
Robert Paarlberg, an international policies expert at the Harvard Kennedy School, is perplexed as well. “I agree that a broad social discussion on human gene editing must continue, but I’m not as worried that scientists will shut out non-scientists. Let’s consider the case of GMO food crops, which were described more than a decade ago by every major national science academy (even in Europe) as presenting no new risk compared to conventional crop plants. Yet civil organizations nearly everywhere were able to demand government regulations that now effectively block the planting of GMO food crops.”
The GMOs controversy indeed has taught scientists a lesson on what can happen if they fail to engage with the public, and nobody wants to repeat the mistake of dropping a controversial technology on an unprepared society. John Godwin is involved in gene drives research at North Carolina State University and stresses that “those discussions should be happening now while the technology is still in relatively early stages of development.” The proposed observatory could be a good approach, he says, and should involve not just a breadth of scholars but diverse stakeholders and communities as well. “It might be more challenging to organize, but probably more effective and impactful in the long run.”
We do not start from scratch, some countries such as the United States, Germany, and Great Britain have already launched initiatives to inform and engage the public. “Dialogue has started but is fragmented. The observatory’s cosmopolitan aspiration is truly commendable, I wonder how it can be concretely achieved,” says Agnes Allansdottir, a social psychologist contributing to international surveys on these issues. It is quite clear to anyone that switching the plan from paper to reality would be a huge challenge, regarding funding, international cooperation and accountability. The proposal is more than ambitious, it is visionary. But are we sure that “observatory” is the right name anyway? Historian of molecular biology Nathaniel Comfort is doubtful. “Metaphors matter. How would the model for dialogue change if it were called, for example, a university, a think tank, or a salon?”. The Johns Hopkins scholar says there are many examples of science attempting to subsume the humanities within their explanatory framework, from E.O. Wilson’s “consilience” to Steven Pinker’s demand, a few years ago, that bioethicists just run along home and leave the thinking to scientists. “Such authors don’t reconcile with the humanities: they colonize them. Does a CRISPR observatory reinforce such scientism in its very name?”.