Policy for the Technology

By Winter, Metta | Human Ecology, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Policy for the Technology


Winter, Metta, Human Ecology


It takes a university to address new issues genomics raises.

In addition to nutritional sciences and human development, policy analysis and management is the third area of Human Ecology most directly connected to the Cornell Genomics Initiative (CGI).

"Moving from a population-based to clinically based model of nutrition and human development raises a host of policy questions that must be systematically and thoughtfully examined," Dean Patsy Brannon says. "What happens if we are able to give a person with a genetic risk for diabetes a prescription for diet and exercise to prevent their disease, and they choose to ignore it? Should they be penalized by an increase in their health insurance rate?"

The conflict between privacy rights and the economics of health insurance is one area that's being investigated by Alan Mathios, an associate professor of policy analysis and mangement. He reports that results from economic theory are surprising. As an economist, Mathios has looked at theory models that predict the reaction of health insurance markets when risk in formation is withheld from insurance companies. These models show that withholding information offers little advantage to people who have a high risk of disease, and it limits the availability of low-risk consumers to purchase comprehensive insurance.

"How advances in biotechnology raise issues of privacy and how we regulate privacy have implications for markets that are very important to insurance and health care," Mathios explains.

One of the hottest consumer protection topics surrounding bioengineered foods is whether they should be labeled. Consumers have a right to know that their food is genetically altered, even when the Food and Drug Administration--which is responsible for ensuring the safety of foods in the United States--has deemed they pose no risk to humans. But do consumers really change their behavior as a result of such labels? For example, anecdotal evidence suggests that consumers are willing to pay more to buy milk that is free of a hormone that boosts a cow's milk production. Is this so?

Mathios and one of his graduate students are using scanner data on milk products from Wegman's Food Markets--a supermarket chain based in Rochester, New York. Some of these products are treated with recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST) and some are not. "We want to see whether consumers are truly willing to pay more for nontreated milk by looking at price changes relative to regular milk and documenting changes in purchasing patterns," Mathios explains.

Bioengineered food has huge legal, financial, and social implications for the farming community in the United States, indeed for all of the developed world. The new life sciences spawn discoveries at near lightening speed. Yet relatively little attention has been paid to the ethical, legal, and social ramifications, which will only grow increasingly prominent in the decades ahead.

Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues

To bring interdisciplinary insights to these issues, Mathios and his colleague David Pelletier, associate professor of nutrition policy, are active members of the Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues (ELSI) commit tee of the CGI. ELSI was established at the behest of then vice provost Cutberto Garza. "Advances in genomics were be ginning to bring about a seismic shift in the public's perception of research--in the sense that in the past scientists were pretty much able to maintain a mono logue with the public listening," says Garza, a professor of nutritional sciences. But no more.

Americans, he explains, used to be so grateful for the role that science had played in World War II, but those memories are fast fading. Now, scientists have to worry about not only the reliability of the knowledge that's being created but-to borrow a phrase--how "socially robust" that knowledge is.

Socially robust knowledge is information that's perceived by the public as useful and beneficial to society at large. …

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