The promise of genetic science for the future

By Helga Nowotny  / 

Sun, Jul 14, 2013 - Page 9

For most people, a promise is a reason to expect something, a well-founded hope without hype. And it is a promise in this sense that connects science to society: The public trusts that scientific and technological advancement are the keys to navigating the uncertain road to a better world, in which future generations can live longer, healthier and happier lives.

This promise originated almost 400 years ago, with the institutionalization of modern science. After discovering that mathematics could be applied to understanding the physical world, a small group of natural philosophers turned toward experimental empiricism with practical objectives. Spearheaded by this minority, the scientific revolution swept through Europe and later spread to the rest of the world.

In his Instauratio Magna, Francis Bacon, one of modern science’s most articulate proponents, conveyed a vision of a new world, transformed through the systematic inquiry of natural phenomena. By imitating and twisting nature, he declared, its secrets would be revealed — and could be manipulated to improve people’s lives. Bacon’s pragmatic objective of using a scientific understanding of natural causes to “effect all things possible” — what is now called innovation — was science’s original promise to society, and formed the core of the Age of Enlightenment.

While many of science’s promises have been fulfilled — notably, the dramatic extension of the human lifespan and of leisure time — many others have been only partly achieved, or not at all. And yet society’s trust in science has not wavered. While specific objectives have changed, the overarching belief that scientific knowledge transforms people’s lives — as cultural, educational, and institutional factors converge with technological and industrial dynamics — has remained strong.

Today, genetics is the leading source of scientific promise. Since James Watson and Francis Crick uncovered DNA’s structure in 1953, a massive amount of available genetic data has been identified, and novel forms of scientific organization and modes of working have emerged. As a result, genetics has brought science to the brink of a new era of enlightenment, in which individuals are understood in terms of the relationships among their unique genomic data.

This movement — the latest incarnation of the endless quest for human advancement — poses new challenges to the relationship between science and society. As the American Museum of Natural History provocatively asked at the 2001 opening of its genetics exhibition: “The genomic revolution is here — are you ready?”

For example, this revolution will undoubtedly lead to the engineering of life through synthetic biology, a prospect that remains controversial. Likewise, epigenetics (the study of heritable changes in gene function that occur without altering the DNA sequence) has reshaped the old nature-versus-nurture debate by highlighting the multi-dimensional character of the relationship between biological and social development. The growing understanding of transgenerational epigenetic modifications, whether nutritional or neurological, has opened new perspectives on the plasticity of the phenotype (an organism’s observable characteristics), and the factors that might affect it. As a result, it is now clear that people’s lifestyles do not concern only themselves.

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