Genetics debate must be open

January 17, 1997

THE NEW science of genetics contains some of the most complete challenges ever created to who we are and how we live. By comparison, nuclear power is just another way to boil water and computers are little more than super-fast logarithmic tables and filing cabinets.

This means that we have to applaud moves that allow the public to participate in thinking about rapidly approaching developments in genetics, such as the University of Glamorgan's Welsh citizens' jury (page 6), as well as more official initiatives such as the Human Genetics Advisory Commission chaired by Sir Colin Campbell.

And there are indications that it might be possible to have a valuable public debate on genetics. The national curriculum means that no school-leaver ought to be able to deny knowing what a gene is. And anyone who watches science programmes on television will know the basics of how genetics works and how humans could intervene in it.

However, real problems of power and information remain. Biotechnologists, for example, still sometimes make the unsustainable claim that they are only doing the things that cattle-breeders, cheese-makers and brewers have done for centuries, finding the best genes and mixing them to get better plants and animals. The sooner they stop saying this and agree that the deliberate insertion of genes - in some cases from other species - into plants and animals is a new departure of vast moment, the better.

It would also be useful if scientists acknowledged that their skill in the laboratory conveys only limited wisdom about how their knowledge might be used. A little modern history might be salutary. The general public decided years before the experts did that nuclear power was expensive rather than cheap and dangerous rather than safe, and they were right.

Scientists' real responsibility is to address the fundamental imbalance in all new technology - the fact that the people who know about it are also the ones whose jobs, grants or careers depend on its success. In biotechnology, so many academics also have links to companies that conflicts of interest and pressures for secrecy are bound to be severe, and even people inclined to pay attention to the public interest are likely to find it is not a priority.

Efforts by activists such as Greenpeace, which has led European protests against genetically-altered foods, ought to be welcomed even by those who are happy to eat supertomatoes. Without some awkward organisation to campaign about the issue, such foods might have fallen on to the dinner plate unnoticed. It is in the industry's interest and that of the public for the debate to occur at an early stage, not after big decisions. Informing people about decisions that have already been taken is not good enough, practically or as a piece of democracy in action.

These problems are all multiplied 100-fold when the subjects are people instead of mice or soya. The up side of genetic knowledge is the potential to eradicate many of the genetic diseases which have caused immeasurable human misery.

But the jump from improved diagnosis to potential direct intervention in the human gene line is one which is still being eyed cautiously by its proponents and with horror by many others, including deep greens and pro-lifers who probably agree about nothing else.

It will never be possible to choose to have children who are clever, beautiful and good-natured, especially if their parents are not. But it is possible to imagine discriminating against genes that dispose people towards a range of conditions that some regard as afflictions and others think are simply part of the human condition.

If Sir Colin's human genetics commission is to be of value and avoid becoming part of the industry on which it is meant to advise, it will inform, stimulate, listen to and transmit public opinion on all these issues in a way that allows people's fears to be articulated and acted upon, and not just calmed.

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