Dr. Judyth Sassoon


10th-12th November 2000


For those of us who didn’t know, the week between the 6th and 12th of November was European Science and Technology Week and several notable European cities were hosting Genetics in Europe Open Days (GEOD). The purpose? To educate that nebulous group of creatures known collectively as "the public" on the potential benefits, expectations and problems of genetic engineering.

In Heidelberg, the big event of that week was the EC sponsored Millenium Conference on Science and Society. It bore the catchy title "Developing a New Dialogue" and according to Halldór Stefánsson, who heads Science and Society activities at EMBL, contributed a "reflective, cross-cultural, multidisciplinary dialogue about the impact of the Life Sciences on the post-modern world." The topic which ran through the whole conference was science communication and there was even a slightly "alternative" session dealing with science and theatre. Of the 250 participants who packed into EMBL’s "Operon" lecture theatre, I am told about half were not professionally involved in scientific research, though some did admit to coming from a scientific background, and these presumably represented "the public". They included educators, journalists, TV presenters, lawyers, and government representatives from all over Europe.

The conference was broken down into four thematic sessions-each consisting of talks followed by round-table discussions. The opening theme "From science to society: case studies, risk studies" dealt with scientific responsibility and public perceptions of how science really works. It was chaired by Lewis Wolpert, and we heard two "case studies", on HIV from Robin Weiss and BSE from John Collinge. These two diseases have impacted society in the fundamental arenas of social behaviour around sex and food. They were used to illustrate the importance of dialogue and demonstrated how far society relies on scientists for help in deciding how to conduct their lives. Weiss felt better education about HIV continues to be a priority, since the opinions of mavericks such as Peter Duesberg are still accepted especially in HIV danger zones such as Africa. With BSE, Collinge said we had an example of the breakdown in communication between researchers, government and society leading to a catastrophe which, he felt, was far from over. Both speakers agreed that a significant obstacle in achieving a decent dialogue was that society expects absolute solutions to these problems, while scientists are only able to answer "to the best of their knowledge", the implication being that scientists would prefer not to be regarded as omniscient, omnipotent gods.

Brian Wynne and Claire Marris spoke next on "risk studies". They stated that public reactions to issues such as GMOs were all too frequently shown as the opposite of "rational dialogue". Marris, presenting results from the PABE (Public Perceptions of Agricultural Biotechnologies in Europe) survey said that scientists believe they can convince the whole world into accepting that what they do is right simply by educating people sufficiently with the facts. Discussing the GMO issue, she claimed her survey showed that in fact no amount of factual indoctrination altered the publics’ ethical, social or moral doubts about biotechnology. During the panel discussion entitled "How to restore public trust in science?" Lewis Wolpert, the most vociferous of the pro-science lobby, responded to Marris in his characteristically aggressive manner commenting firstly, that anyone who thinks they know what the public want is wrong and secondly, as soon as the market begins to sell GMOs that are cheap, stop ageing, help people to lose weight etc. then all public doubts and ethical concerns will disappear. Evidently he felt he knew what the public wanted even if no-one else did.

The second and third sessions bore the respective titles: "Medical uses of genetic information" and "On Human Genome Projects: Uses and Abuses". The discussions focussed on the potential uses of human genome information in the future. Chairman Jens Reich remarked that in the next few years we would experience a strong movement away from the reductionist view of the genome to a more integrated (he did not say holistic) consideration of individuals – as he put it, a move from genomics to phenomics. With the advent of phenomics a time would come when every individual phenotype would be re-conceptualized in terms of biochemistry, including enzyme activities, RNA and protein levels, along with the underlying personal genetic information. Somehow I can not see this as a movement away from reductionism as chemico-centric, as opposed to a genocentric, definitions merely reduce the individual to a set of new parameters. Nevertheless, chemico-centricity seems to be the latest drift and was enthusiastically promulgated by the distinguished speakers in this session. Peter Goodfellow spoke vigorously about pharmacogenetics describing how in the future it would be possible to design drug treatments for individuals on the basis of their genetic and biochemical information. Goodfellow, incidentally, left the academic world to become the Senior Vice-President of Discovery at SmithKline Beecham, U.K. and he obviously sees the potential business opportunities in this area. Furthermore, he deplored the fact that some people may wish to keep their genetic information private, saying that society is responsible for making sure that new knowledge is used to benefit people not enslave them. The theme was then taken up by Andrea Ballabio who stated provocatively that within the next seven years, the genome and phenome of each individual would be documented. He also speculated how this might impact the health arena with doctor-patient contact being reduced to a minimum. Doctors would be able to assess each patient from their biochemistry and prescribe appropriate treatments without resorting to direct personal contact. We would have diagnosis in silico - efficient, precise and far less stressful and messy than a direct face-to-face encounter.

Next, Alexandre Mauron and Sheila Jasanoff attempted to re-balance the discussion by presenting views from the philosophical, ethical and legal angle. Both talked of the costs of reconceptualizing human identity in terms of genes and other small molecules. Mauron saw the latest developments as a genomic metaphysics, a belief that the human genome constitutes the ontological core of the human being as both individual and species. He was of the opinion that the genome has become the functional equivalent of the Aristotelian soul as it is believed to hold the essence of what it is to be human. Jasanoff added that the way genetic knowledge is related to conceptions of the human being is mediated by social institutions which are already full of prior ideas. She pointed out that science can’t just dump new ideas on society and expect them to be accepted without question, as the new knowledge and its consequences are being introduced into institutions which are already rich in modes of legal, ethical and moral behaviour. Charles Kurland replied to both these speakers saying that no scientist would ever say that the essence or soul is in the genome but he felt that science researchers were being obliged to integrate such old concepts, as well as the outdated views of social institutions, into their work. Thus, he felt, science was being controlled by old ideas.

Kurland also chaired the last session entitled "Biotechnology, bio-industry, and bio-business". He introduced the subject by saying that the good, old fashioned "bottom up" planning and peer review in science was being replaced by "top down" control from government and industries. He called the new situation "command research" and deplored how science was now valued in political circles primarily as a means of accumulating wealth. Gone are the days of scientists being driven by pure desire to understand nature. Such lofty ideals are now regarded as naïve expressions of "mere curiousity", with no practical application. These comments were followed by two talks offering the industrial perspective. Friedrich von Bohlen described how the European biotech industry is lagging behind the US, and the necessity for competition, emphasizing that the only way for small companies in Europe to survive was to make deals and collaborations with bigger companies. His own company, LION Bioscence, Heidelberg, has already made fruitful alliances with Bayer and Celera. Manfred Kern, from Aventis CropScience, took up the issue of the world food situation with the question "How can we feed everyone and keep human dignity?" He went on to explain how biotech companies were concerned with increasing the food security margin for the future. At the moment, only 0.26% more food is being produced than is required on a global scale. He announced that companies now have the technology to support world food security and stressed the importance of keeping up with food demand as the world population increases. He also stated firmly that food distribution was not the concern of biotech companies. It was a little strange, in that case, that he opened his lecture with the question "how can we feed everyone". With 24,000 people dying of hunger every day in spite of the food security margin, world hunger is clearly a problem of distribution not production. To suggest that biotech companies will feed the world when they state categorically that food distribution is not their concern, was very misleading.

The final talk in this section was from Julian Davies and was entitled "Antibiotics for the 21st Century". Davies highlighted the desperate problem of acquired antibiotic resistance in bacteria due to their overuse. He presented this as an illustration of what happens when society adopts a potentially beneficial discovery with cavalier enthusiasm, without realizing that there may be unforeseen repercussions. In this case, bacteria responded to the millions of metric tons of antibiotics that were thrown into the biosphere by becoming resistant to them. The situation is now irreversible because as well as gaining genetic information for antibiotic resistance, bacteria acquired compensatory genes which stabilized their new phenotypes. I asked Davies if he thought the removal of all antibiotics could change the current situation and he replied that certain experiments with Klebsiella showed that, though resistance would decrease, it would still remain at a higher level than before. What a marvellous example of natural selection due to human activity! In fact already in 1946, Alexander Fleming warned that we should be careful not to overuse antibiotics because of the possibility of acquired resistance but no one could have predicted either its extent nor its stability in the year 2000. It makes one wonder what the comparable consequences of the introduction of GMOs might be?

There followed a panel discussion under the heading "Biotechnology and its Discontents", an interesting echo of Sigmund Freud’s work "Civilization and its Discontents"- a treatise on sexual frustration. Is it possible that Biotechnology now sees itself as equivalent to Civilization? Perhaps the "discontents" are merely expressing some form of curable psycho-sexual frustration disorder! Panelist and EC representative Mark Cantley made novel use of a passage from Rachel Carson’s "Silent Spring" to transmit his pro-biotech message. In her book, which in 1962 exposed the hazards of the pesticide DDT by eloquently questioning humanity's faith in technological progress, Carson wrote that pest control solutions of the future must be based on a deeper understanding of the living organism. Cantley took this statement and argued that biotechnology was just that - a deeper understanding of the organism. This was a point that no-one disputed, not even Stefan Flothmann representing Greenpeace, even though it must have been obvious to everyone that more information about something is not equivalent to "a deeper understanding." When speaking on behalf of Greenpeace, Flothmann presented his political views with dignity but, surprisingly, remained unchallenged. I would even go as far as to say he was largely ignored by the hard-core supporters of biotechnology. I suppose this shows that the views of Greenpeace are either too well known or simply considered to be of no real interest to this particular debate.

The keynote lecture of the conference was given by Carl Djerassi, famous for his pioneer work on the contraceptive pill. He described how during the last 40 years the pill and IUD had separated the sexual act from conception and, whilst the social focus to date had been on "contraception", in the future there would be a greater emphasis on "conception". With in vitro fertilization, new life can now be created without sexual intercourse. Djerassi spoke particularly about a technique called ICSI (Intracytoplasmic sperm injection) which allows selected single sperm to be directly injected into an ovum. The social and ethical consequences of this technique are enormous, ranging from sex pre-determination and pre-implantation genetic screening to post-menopausal pregnancies. He went as far as to say that the widespread use of gamete storage may make contraception unnecessary by replacing it with early sterilization.

Apart from being a renowned scientist, Djerassi is also the author of several works of fiction and plays. He was therefore invited to participate in the session "Science in the spotlight" dealing with the theme of science in theatre. His play "An Immaculate Misconception" was shown in full and was remarkably thought provoking, bringing home the social issues surrounding the invention of ICSI with enormous force. "You raped my egg!!!" screams the lady scientist to her colleague who has secretly injected his own sperm into her experimental ova. "You stole his sperm!!!" yells the colleague, dredging up the fact that she kept her married lover’s used condom in order to get a suitable sperm sample for her experiment. Here we are faced with a variety of novel social and legal questions such as cellular rape, micro-adultery, sperm abduction and above all gross moral and scientific misconduct, in vivo and in vitro, all within the pristine setting of a University Laboratory - and the reviewers loved it! It is worth considering Lewis Wolpert’s comment that "the whole of Western literature has not been kind to science and is filled with images of scientists meddling with nature with disasterous results". He was implying that an image-makeover for scientists was in order. Well, this play has done scientists no favours presenting them (perhaps accurately) as a bunch of frightful, self-centred, controlling, immature individuals who would do anything to get their names on a paper. I will not attempt to comment on this play as a work of art, other than to say I found the style corny and the characters shallow, but the media have raved about it and as an educational tool it has considerable value.

Rather than giving me hope for the future, this conference presented a rather grim view of our brave new world. Many important issues were highlighted and discussed but I did not feel that anyone came close to achieving a really new dialogue with anyone else. I was, however pleased to see that the discussions generated a lot of interest among the younger, pre-doctoral students. When I spoke to them I found they desperately wanted to hear all the arguments from every side and were not prepared to take any view at face value. I hope, therefore, that these young scientists of the future will continue to listen and question the value of their work and come into their specializations with a developed sense of social responsibility and awareness.


Dr. Judyth Sassoon
Dept. of Chemistry and Biochemistry,
University of Berne,
Freierstrasse 3,
CH-3012 Berne,
Tel: +41 31 631 4324
Fax: +41 31 631 4887
Email: sassoon@izb.unibe.ch



Where to find more information:

EMBO: European Molecular Biology Organisation. http://www.embo.org/

EMBL: European Molecular Biology Laboratory. http://www.embl-heidelberg.de/

GEOD: Genetics in Europe Open Days. www.geod.org

For further details about the conference (incl. schedule, participant biographies and a follow-up page) please see: http://www.embl-heidelberg.de/Conferences/SciSoc00/index.html)

For more information on Carl Djerassi’s books and plays, including excerpts from "An Immaculate Misconception" please see http://www.djerassi.com/icsi.html or visit his homepage http://www.djerassi.com/)

For information about ICSI, see http://www.advancedfertility.com/icsi.htm


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