TCS Daily

Scientific Values

By Waldemar Ingdahl - September 18, 2002 12:00 AM

Genetics and biotechnology have already emerged as two of the great issues of the 21st century, issues that blur many of the political lines of today.

Biotechnology is often embedded in other methods and products. And it requires expertise to employ it and to understand it thoroughly. Thus it is difficult to perceive its benefits and easier to find flaws. As a result, it is often viewed by many as unnecessary.

Of course, it is possible for us to live without biotechnology. But with it, the life quality of the great majority of people will improve. For those afflicted by genetically induced diseases, for example, biotech can make their lives markedly better. Today the treatments for dwarfism, immune deficiency diseases and hemophilia are not as difficult and costly as they once were.

The West might be able to afford more expensive health care or inefficient agriculture and industry, but not the poor countries of the world. Biotechnology might be the key to bootstrap the developing world out of poverty.

One example of such bootstrapping can be found with biotechnology and rice. When India chose rice as its culture crop many years, Indians lacked alternatives. But since rice lacks vitamin A, eye diseases are common among the poorest Indians who are unable to vary their diet. With genetically modified rice - enhanced to include vitamins - millions wouldn't have to lose their sight.

Presently we see that new technologies develop at a rapidly increasing pace, since progress in related disciplines is cumulative. This is seen, for instance, in the great breakthroughs of the 1990s in molecular biology. That discipline benefitted from the ability to process large amounts of data with the help of rapidly developing computers. Laboratory processes were thus made faster and more efficient.

The threshold that must be overcome to introduce a new technology in society has been raised by pressure groups that view it as their task to limit innovations. These pressure groups have - much earlier than the advocates of innovation - understood the connections between society and science. The fact that the opponents are already organizing themselves at this stage when risks and benefits cannot be easily assessed will likely lead to a low level of debate.

To this date, biotechnology research and deployment hasn't resulted in any major mishaps. But a single mishap doesn't have to be particularly dangerous to turn public opinion for the worse. It only needs to take place in a sufficiently charged atmosphere of opinion. Then the public's support of the technology will be put to a test: Is it perceived as so beneficial to society that the risks can be managed? We can compare biotech with the first trains in the 19th century, when several horrible accidents occured, but the benefits were widely perceived and acknowledged, and measures were taken not to ban trains but to make them safer.

It is of utmost importance for scientists to participate actively in the debates over biotech and genetics. They should discuss science not just in terms of utility or efficiency gains, but to engage the public on broader moral concerns about the impact of their research and findings on society - and about the moral deficiencies of a society without biotech. Preparing the public so that biotechnology can be used to its fullest potential is a long-term project. General information campaigns and even educating more people in the sciences isn't enough. The notion of simply informing away the doubts and resistance doesn't take into account the underlying values behind the doubts and resistance. Such resistence can only be met by invoking values as well.

The writer is CEO of Eudoxa, a Swedish public policy group.

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