Brussels, 03 Mar 2004
Since Crick and Watson uncovered DNA's double helix 50 years ago, science has witnessed a surge of discoveries in biology, culminating in new fields of research, technologies and medical practices – better known as the 'life sciences'. But these innovations raise as many questions as they answer. The Commission is hosting a special 'encounter' to debate the issues.
'Modern biology and visions of humanity' – an event organised by the European Commission under the aegis of the European Group on Life Sciences (EGLS) – will take place on 22 and 23 of March in the northern Italian city of Genoa. It draws its inspiration from the notion that science does not occur in a vacuum, and that scientific development is not always synonymous with progress.
Modern science tends to take for granted that new knowledge stemming from science and technology will benefit humanity, making it a priority for improving the human condition. Yet, alongside this now largely dominant view of Western science, other opinions of social history – ranging from the moderately sceptical to the outright pessimistic – compete for public attention.
Doubters raise questions not only about the use, but also about the risk of abuse of the know-how and technologies derived from the life sciences. These questions – often economic in tone but also ethical, philosophical, political, historical and, not forgetting, social – ensure that science is not pursued for science's sake.
Policy-makers, scientists and science communicators are obliged to ask themselves, how do we present the extraordinary discoveries in the life sciences and to whom? What's more, can these findings be harnessed to help diminish the inequalities existing in the world? And will citizens understand the benefits that such progress can bring about, or will they shun radical change out of fear of the unknown?
This 'encounter', arranged by the Commission's Research Directorate-General, will bring together philosophers, leading scholars in the arts and other humanities, writers, political thinkers and, of course, scientists in modern biology and EGLS members. Together, they will reflect on how the life sciences are affecting perceptions of what it means to be human, and where this will lead.
To broaden the debate, guests have been invited from a cross-section of society, including lobby groups, young people and religious organisations. The gathering will provide a forum for airing their questions and, more importantly, paving the way for scientific development that ensures progress which is both acceptable and genuinely benefits humanity.
The discussions will be moderated around four themes: Life sciences and the belief in progress; Challenges and limitations of reductionism in life science research; Life sciences and democracy; and Science fiction – cultural spin-offs from the life sciences. A professional book of essays on these themes has been put together ahead of the event. Belgian publisher De Boeck coordinated production of the English, French and Italian versions.
One contribution, from Sophie Bessis – author and professor of development and international co-operation at Paris I-Sorbonne (FR) – ponders if science should be accountable to society, or have a free reign. Axel Khan, a former EGLS president and head of the research unit of genetic and molecular physiology and pathology at Institut Cochin (FR), reminds us that science and technology – powerful as they are – in no way guarantee better quality of life. This depends as much on socio-economic and historical circumstances.