Science for a Brave New World

On Monday, I attended an interesting lecture sponsored by the 21st Century School here in Oxford entitled "What Is Science For?". You can see a discussion on the event here and read a pdf summary of it here. The lecture was co-presented by scientist John Sulston and philosopher John Harris, and it was introduced by Richard Dawkins, who also moderated the Q&A afterward. As the summary focuses on, the event was partially a debate on the purpose of science, with Harris proposing a utilitarian view and Sulston defending a focus more on the intrinsic value of inquiry and discovery (and the unexpected utilitarian benefits that often emerge from such endeavors).

However, I would have entitled the event something more like "Science for a Brave New World", as it was more of an exercise in futurism than in basic philosophy. Much of this was from Harris' far-fetched discussion about science's role in eventually creating immortal humans or--in his view more likely--a new race of intelligent beings to succeed humans. More relevant to, well... anything... though, was the discussion on the role of science in improving our world. The point was made that in order for science to fulfill its potential of doing the greatest amount of good for our world, not only do we need to nurture scientific inquiry (through public funding of science and effective science education), but we need to also regulate science in a way to protect against unethical and harmful applications, and we need to ensure that the fruits of scientific discovery are distributed as broadly and as equally to society as a whole as possible.

The regulation of science is always a tricky issue, and the absolute last thing we need to do is stifle potential beneficial innovations due to our own naive fears and prejudices. Because of this and the fact that it is very difficult to anticipate what ethical issues will arise from the exponential and unpredictable advancement of science, this regulation will always largely be reactionary. But, this doesn't mean we can't be more proactive than we are now. An excellent example of this was the recent passage of GINA, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. GINA, which has now been passed by the House and the Senate and only awaits the president's signature before becoming law, will protect against employers and health insurers discriminating against employees or insurees based on the results of genetic tests. In an age when genetic testing is becoming increasingly common, this is an absolutely necessary prerequisite for a 21st Century society. The only problem is that GINA was originally proposed in 1995. Although many back then could see the wisdom of such legislation, it took 13 years until the necessity of it was so incredibly undeniable that passage became unavoidable. And, by this point, the negative consequences of not passing it had already emerged, particularly in the large numbers of people who were opting out of genetic studies for fear of discrimination.

Clearly, then, the need for GINA had been anticipated long ago, and hopefully we can do a better job of acting on such anticipations in the future. Of course, this doesn't mean that being proactive is a blanket prescription, since the Bush Administration ban on federally funding embryonic stem cell research was also quite proactive. The difference here is that the ban was most certainly not guided by rational scientific-based opinion, but rather by religious pandering. It's difficult to broadly define what sorts of legislation are needed--and what sorts aren't--but a pretty good rule of thumb is that prevailing scientific opinion is generally a good guide. Also, we should be particularly skeptical of blanket bans on certain areas of research or on the funding of those areas.

The question that I wanted to ask the panelists on Monday (but didn't have a chance to ask) was whether they have a certain suite of legislation in mind that they believe needs to be passed now to provide a threshold level of safety and a greater assurance of scientific good in the near (and distant) future. I would be quite interested to hear their take on this question, as I'm not even sure what I think of it myself. Beyond GINA, a few things come to mind--such as carbon dioxide emission caps, universal health care, scientific independence from political meddling, more inspired scientific education to ensure a basic scientific literacy in the general population, and stronger regulation of the drug industry--but I'll freely admit that these are both overly broad and surely short-sighted. Regardless, these are visible targets, so nothing should prevent us from acting on them now. Besides, who knows what sorts of new challenges await us right around the corner?

Thanks to Eliana for taking me along to the event!


More like this

You know, I was thinking the same thing in the post-GINA celebrating.

Genetic protection: the process

And as legislation goes, this was fairly straightforward. As I thought about the complexity of some of the other issues science faces, and thought about the time and persistence that would take, I'm daunted. Louise Slaughter is 78 years old now. A lot of people might have retired or lost elections instead of being able to shepherd this for so long.