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Can we Find a Shared Vision for Biotechnology?

image Published: Apr 14, 2010

Vision is something which motivates us, rooted in certain values we hold. Scientists, companies, governments and regulators have positive differing visions about biotechnology - like discovery, prosperity, sustainability, competitivity. Such visions may not however be shared by the public, especially concerning food, agriculture and the environment. The vision of progress through technology has been increasingly challenged in Europe. A more sceptical attitude has emerged, which may construct innovation in terms of risk as much as benefit. To be accepted by society, biotechnology has now to fulfill certain conditions, an invisible social contract. For example, if an application is unfamiliar, it must be in control of people who are trusted and whose motivations are shared; it must not challenge fundamental values, or present high consequence risks unless there is a comparable benefit to the end user.

The importing of US genetically modified food into Europe failed many of these conditions. There was a major mismatch of perceptions and visions. The popular revolt of the UK public revealed a spectacular failure by the companies concerned, the EC and the UK government to pay attention to warnings about deep public value questions raised by GM food. It also highlighted major differences in European and North American public attitudes, like trust of regulators and perceptions of risk. GM food has become the symbol of a complex set of ethical and societal issues which now confronts any future developments in this sector.

Much of the biotechnology community has not learned a lesson from nuclear power, namely the difference between scientific rationality and value rationality. There is a gulf, not so much about facts, but of perceptions, values and visions. The solution is not primarily to “educate the public”. My twin visions for the future are for a biotechnology which regards its ethical dimension as intrinsic, not extrinsic, to its task, and which has learnt to listen to its public and adapt its goals to their values and visions. In Europe and increasingly elsewhere, the biosciences can no longer assume an automatic cultural mandate for all their projects. In particular, for more innovative aspects of non-human biotechnology, the future lies in finding common cause with ordinary people.

How do we get there? In many ways. On the technology side, the Society, Religion and Technology Project of the Church of Scotland provides one viable model for engaging biotechnologists with ethical and social issues. Its working group on animal and plant genetic engineering brought together a unique combination of expertise in genetics, ethics, sociology, risk and animal welfare over 5 years. This long term, multi-disciplinary format proved very effective in providing a space for open discourse, where no one discipline or rationality was dominant, and all members both challenged and learned from each other. The resulting book “Engineering Genesis” has been widely acclaimed for its balance and insight.

On the public side, there is also no single method of engagement with biotechnology issues. Different models - public debates, focus groups, consensus conferences, citizens juries - all have a role to play, tailored to particular situations. The vision includes a corresponding need for transparency by government and regulators. Cultures unused to open discussion need to develop it. To restore public confidence, the patenting process needs a parallel process of ethical assessment of bioinventions, and the risk regulation needs independent sources of critical data clearly segregated from any commercial interest. The long term trend towards less public sector funding has produced a proportional decrease in public trust. The private sector also needs to rethink its transparency. It cannot both maintain a “commercial-in-confidence” mentality and regain the confidence of the public.

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