Start of history at the cutting edge

February 21, 1997

This collection of essays is the product of a seminar held at the Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering in the spring of 1994 at Rice University, Houston, Texas. The volume prides itself, as it seems all such volumes feel obliged to do, on its pioneering interdisciplinary efforts to bring issues of science and society to a general public even though parallel efforts have been taking place for quite some time spurred by generous funding for many such forums from moneys devoted by the federal government to the ethical, legal and social consequences of the Human Genome Project. The current volume is not the best of the genre, although it does include some distinctive and perceptive material from practitioners not enmeshed in the cliches of the conference set.

Typical of the platitudes that abound at such events and in such volumes, we read in the introduction: "Biotechnology promises to alter people's lives as radically in the next century as did electricity, telecommunications, and the automobile in the 20th." Why this comparison is made, rather than say public health campaigns or wars (major accelerators of technological innovation) is unclear. A perfunctory pass is made at affirming the value and excitement of science but clearly the authors are at a loss as to how to explain the existence of what they take to be a mood of antiscience. Looking inward might help.

Daniel E. Koshland Jr's "Ethical decision making in a pluralistic society" is the by now infamous instantiation of a certain smugness that makes many mistrust scientists. The article is infamous because Koshland originally made its key claims in an editorial in Science, during his tenure as editor.

Critics have justifiably challenged his views that "Ethics is largely a matter of each person's independent judgement, because morality is largely defined by religion." After all, from Kant through Rawls, we have had a few efforts in modernity at systematic and secular ethical philosophy. More provocative yet is Koshland's argument that mapping the genome is a vital contribution to curing contemporary social problems such as homelessness because "50 per cent of the people on the street are mentally ill" and mental illness is substantially a question of genetics. Those concerned about the public credibility of science might well worry that with defenders like these, who needs enemies?

Fortunately other articles are more insightful. Jerome Schultz, in his article "Interactions between universities and industry," correctly points out that funding pressures and therefore policy and political pressures come not only from industry but equally from government and consequently it is worth examining the "partial myth that a university is inherently an open institution". Schultz documents the tremendous concentration of research funding in a small group of universities in the US. He also shows that although research has been a component of a few American universities for at least a century, the distinctive and predominant place it currently occupies can be traced only to the end of world war two when the National Science Foundation replaced industry as the chief funder of academic research. Schultz, citing examples, predicts that universities will increasingly play the role of a flexible pool of specialists forging temporary contractual involvements with specific industry and government projects.

Neal Lane, in his "National Science Foundation's perspective on university-industry interaction," argues that such a scenario is already in place. Lane, who works for the NSF, writes: "The possibility of mutually beneficial and non-compromising relations between academic research and industry is a basic assumption that underlies the success of more than 100 NSF-sponsored centres connecting universities and industry. Around the country, there are more than 1,000 centres and other collaborative organisations of this kind. So, it is actually a myth that NSF has supported only the pure pursuit of knowledge I it has a longstanding tradition of several decades of encouraging strong interaction with industry." While forums are taking place with a lot of hand waving about hypothetical cases, Lane points out that there already are close to 20 years of experience and precedent on how to deal with questions of intellectual property and commercialisation.

Judith Swazey in her article "Ensuring the ethical conduct of research: who is responsible?" presents the telling results of her survey research. "Although graduate students in the sciences support a textbook image of how science should work, only 20 per cent of faculty strongly support the traditional norms of universalism, communality, organised scepticism, and only 5 per cent support disinterestedness." Ambivalence reigns.

Swazey argues that these results are troubling because it has been assumed that the traditional ethical norms of science are passed down in a craft or guild-like fashion and that today not every graduate student has a mentor, even if they have an adviser. In fact, one could read her results in the opposite direction - apparently faculty need more help from their graduate students.

Making craft categories central is no longer appropriate in biology, argues Michael Shculer in his thoughtful article "Development of biopharmaceuticals: an engineering perspective." Rather he calls for more attention to a systems perspective attuned to changes of scale: "if you want to make a protein and nothing but a protein, you are in the soybean businessI In pharma you need to know about quality".

It is now known, for example, that although yeast and bacteria are good cloning vectors for certain types of experiments they are less useful for pharmaceutical goals due to technical problems of protein production, only appreciated as the scale of production changed. Furthermore, Schuler warns, what may work on a single experiment or sample may not do so at a vastly different scale. The environment influences results. Organisms are always in a relationship with an environment whether research lab, industrial lab or in the proverbial wild; what might work perfectly well at the scale of initial clinical trials, might yield disastrously different results at another stage of production and evaluation.

Schuler cautions against the elegant diagrams and decontextualised models too often employed in molecular biology texts in which "unique genes have unique effects on physiology". Rather, he warns, "98 per cent of diseases have a strong epigenetic factor".

Complex nonlinear reactions of gene networks govern such interactions. For example, mutations in the p53 gene, a well-studied tumour suppressor, have been linked to many cancers. Although a mouse from whom both p53 alleles have been eliminated should develop cancer, not all do. This result demonstrates that other gene products, and in some cases the whole epigenetic network, are able to functionally replace the p53 gene products. Schuler is correct that "there is a distinction to predicting predisposition and being able to predict what will happen", the complexity of environment (however artificial), organism interactions, and hence the history of the organism and its subsystems, can be ignored in certain research settings, but if one is seeking to intervene therapeutically, such reductionism can be perilous. Since biotechnology might well change our lives, such prudence is worth heeding.

Paul Rabinow is professor of anthropology, University of California, Berkeley.

Biotechnology: Science, Engineering, and Ethical Challenges for the 21st Century

Editor - Frederick B. Rudolph and Larry V. McIntire
ISBN - 0 309 05282 3
Publisher - National Academy Press
Price - £28.95
Pages - 8

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments