Academic journal article The Geographical Review

DREADING CRISPR: GMOs, HONEST BROKERS, AND MERTONIAN TRANSGRESSIONS

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

DREADING CRISPR: GMOs, HONEST BROKERS, AND MERTONIAN TRANSGRESSIONS

Article excerpt

Newly arriving biotechnologies are beginning to force us all--scientists, policy makers, and the public--to confront questions of extraordinary difficulty. We will urgently need scientists to act as "honest brokers" to help educate, enrich debate, and inform policy. Our problem is that honest brokerage in the disciplines most directly related to biotechnology has been a casualty of the last two decades of rhetorical warfare over genetic engineering. My aim here is to consider what honest brokers are and how we lost them.

The source of these challenging new questions is a genetic-engineering technology called CRISPR. (1) CRISPR is a "genome editor," differing from conventional genetic engineering which is based on recombinant DNA. (2) Rather than cobbling together a recombinant DNA package to be implanted randomly, CRISPR operates directly on the DNA of the target organism, using programmable proteins to cut DNA at precise locations. It can knock out, activate, or alter genes. This is an extraordinary power indeed, and the claims of possible CRISPR feats are astonishing, even by the breathless standards of biotech rhetoric: it may save the world from hunger, eliminate malaria, cure cancer, treat HIV, make pig organs for humans, cure blindness. Of the many questions these claims raise, the most knotty concern CRISPRing humans. In a 2015 TED talk, CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna displayed a speculative image of a smiling baby "edited" not just for lowered disease risk, but for improved eyesight, IQ, athletic prowess, and musical ability. Her message: let's use it "wisely." My question: who gets to decide what is "wise"? In 2017, the U.S. National Academies of Science issued a report advocating modifying human germlines--meaning that the changes would be heritable--once "proper restrictions are in place" and "relevant safety and efficacy issues have been resolved" (Reardon 2017). Again: who gets to determine what is "proper" and "efficacious," and when issues are "resolved"? I know of no more profound and pressing questions in science policy today.

These questions would be vexing even if the technology were static, but it is developing at dizzying speed. Therefore, we have to debate uses not just of the technology we have but what we predict it may become in the future. And the future, as Yogi Berra reminds us, is one of the hardest things to predict (1998).

To make policy, to form opinions, and to know how to use our votes and consumer dollars wisely, we all need informed opinion on the new biotechnology. "Basic" scientists--here meaning academic or independent scientists whose brief it is to further general knowledge--are obviously not the only source of such guidance, but they are particularly valuable for three reasons.

The first has to do with sheer knowledge: basic scientists tend to know the technology and underlying science. Their fact checking and explanations are badly needed, as the mainstream media has floundered in separating the well-informed concerns from the implausible, and even deranged, claims with past genetic engineering. With genome editing, I fear the media will not only flounder, but founder.

The second has to do with epistemology: key CRISPR issues are riddled with uncertainty, and a defining feature of basic science is the rigor with which it deals with uncertainty (Stone 2015a). Scientific disciplines have rules, both codified and normative, that make transparent how and to what extent anything is "known." Anti-GMO activists and pro-GMO corporate executives are not bound by such epistemological constraints, nor do they claim to be.

The third pertains to the nature of career reward structures. Most basic scientists work at academic institutions that enjoy an implicit contract with society: titles, esteem, career protections like tenure, and financial benefits of tax exemption in exchange for pedagogy, knowledge production, and service as a "protective institution of society" (Stone 2014). …

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