These developments — and the questions that they raise — underscore the need to redraw the map of the sciences. A more integrated research agenda that includes the social sciences is crucial to ensuring that the promise of genetic research benefits all.
In fact, such research is integral to improving upon the factors that contribute most to a society’s wealth: health, education and ethics. Indeed, more encompassing knowledge of personal genomics can engender a new sense of commonality. With a better understanding of people’s relationships to each other — from the impact that one’s lifestyle could have on the health of future generations to the corrosive effects of existing inequalities and the concomitant risk of a new genetic divide — a healthier, more equal society could be created.
However, realizing this vision requires accounting for the different choices that people make within a pluralistic society. To this end, the collaboration of social and scientific institutions would help to break down language and cultural barriers, ensuring that the genomic revolution aids, rather than alienates, the public, and thereby passes the true test of any scientific advancement: relevance to everyday experience. In a world characterized by multiple, overlapping crises, people need to see, understand and identify with what genetics has to offer.
When asked what should keep us awake at night, the economist Amartya Sen answered: “The tragedies that we can prevent, the injustice that we can repair.”
Applying scientific advances to the prevention of tragedy and the redress of injustice fulfills science’s core promise. Strengthening the real-world role of genetics is an essential step in that direction.
Helga Nowotny is president of the European Research Council.
Copyright: Project Syndicate