Editing the human genome requires difficult conversations between science and society
In October 2020, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of an adaptable and easy way to edit genomes, known as CRISPR, which transformed the world of genetic engineering.
CRISPR has been used to fight lung cancer and correct the mutation that causes sickle cell disease in stem cells. But the technology was also used by a Chinese scientist to covertly and illegally alter the genomes of twin daughters – the very first inherited human germline mutation made through genetic engineering.
“We have moved away from an era of science where we understood the risks associated with new technologies and where the decision-making stakes were quite low,” says Dietram Scheufele, professor of life sciences communication at the University of Wisconsin. Madison.
Today, say Scheufele and his colleagues, we are in a world where new technologies have very immediate and sometimes unpredictable but significant impacts on society. In an article published the week of April 26 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers say such cutting-edge technology, especially CRISPR, requires more solid and thoughtful public engagement if it is to be harnessed for profit. of the public without going through ethics. lines.
The authors claim that being thoughtful and transparent about public engagement goals and using evidence from the social sciences can help facilitate the difficult conversations society must have on scientific issues like CRISPR and their societal implications. Effective public engagement, in turn, lays the foundation for public ownership of the progress that comes from CRISPR.
Professor Dominique Brossard and graduate student Nicole Krause, in collaboration with Isabelle Freiling, research assistant at the University of Vienna, co-authored the report with Scheufele. The article stems from a 2019 colloquium of the National Academy of Sciences on CRISPR.
The researchers say such cutting-edge technology, especially CRISPR, requires more solid and thoughtful public engagement if it is to be harnessed for public benefit without crossing ethical boundaries.
Since 2012, when the CRISPR system was first described, scientists have understood both its genetic engineering potential and the need for public engagement to discuss possible uses of the technology. Many scientists wanted to avoid rehashing the controversies surrounding genetically modified organisms, which have been harshly criticized as unnatural and unnecessary by some activists despite widespread scientific support for their use.
Yet, says Krause, some scientists who have supported the use of CRISPR have started by wrongly repeating the public engagement methods used for GMOs, which “assumes people just need more knowledge, more knowledge. ‘an ability to understand science’. Instead, Krause adds, “Solutions that focus on tailoring communications to people’s values would make more sense.”
This values-based public engagement strategy is supported by social science research on how people form and change their views on new technologies. Some methods of public engagement engage value systems and encourage thoughtful conversation, more than others.
For example, what researchers call “public participation” and “public collaboration” are two-way communication methods involving the joint exchange of information and values and the identification and design of science-based decisions that adhere to these values. This contrasts with “public communication”, which focuses only on the dissemination of scientific information.
This values-based public engagement strategy is supported by social science research on how people form and change their views on new technologies.
Scheufele and his colleagues say such collaborative approaches could help scientists broaden the representation of voices in debates around science to often overlooked groups, such as people with disabilities or racial minorities.
“As a scientific community, we do not have a long experience of an effective engagement mechanism with these communities,” says Scheufele. This inability to reach larger groups stems in part from low participation rates at most science engagement events, which also attract highly selective audiences.
Another challenge is to reward scientists for their public engagement. “There is very little incentive in academia to do this kind of work,” says Scheufele.
A recent report from Brossard et al. Found that the majority of professors who grant land felt public engagement was very important, but believed it was less important to their colleagues. This gap suggests that scientists believe their engagement efforts will not be rewarded by their peers, Brossard says.
Now Brossard, Krause, Scheufele and their colleagues have a grant from the National Science Foundation to research how to depolarize the debates around CRISPR. Previous studies suggest that holding people accountable for their positions helps them think more critically about their underlying reasoning. And when social scientists emphasize the inherent complexity of people’s values, it helps people view controversial issues with more nuance.
But involving a diverse society with pluralistic value systems in deliberations on the latest technology will never be easy.
“The policy-making process involves more than just science. Science will inform how we regulate technology, as will religious, political, ethical, regulatory and economic considerations, ”says Scheufele. “And so, the ability to truly engage in this much larger framework where we significantly contribute and guide the debate with the best available science is a major challenge.”
This work was supported by the National Science Foundation (grant SES-1827864).