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Conversations on Science, Society & the Future of Gene Editing

This year’s CRISPRcon aimed to tackle the big questions of Science, Society and the Future of Gene Editing in Wageningen, The Netherlands, on the 20. and 21. June 2019.

What influences how societies view, value and engage with technological innovation?, What does history teach us about the emergence of new technology and how should that shape our views on gene editing? Steffi Friedrichs (AcumenIST), Dr. Nitya Sambamurti Ghotge (Anthra), Joris Lohman (Food Hub), Anita van Mil (Hopkins Van Mil), and Robert Smith (University of Edinburgh) tried to answer these questions during a panel discussion on The Evolution of Innovation: What Drives Societal Embrace or Rejection of Emerging Technologies?.

Technologies serve each other; […] this soon becomes very confusing.

[Dr Steffi Friedrichs, CRISPRcon 2019 Panel Discussion on ‘The Evolution of Innovation: What Drives Societal Embrace or Rejection of Emerging Technologies?’, 20. June 2019, Wageningen]
Dr Steffi Friedrichs on her analysis of the trends and developments in biotechnology and nanotechnology over the past 25 years (CRISPRcon 2019 Panel Discussion on ‘The Evolution of Innovation: What Drives Societal Embrace or Rejection of Emerging Technologies?’, 20. June 2019, Wageningen).

AcumenIST Dr Steffi Friedrichs kicked off the discussion by noting that ‘[…] technologies serve each other: so, nanotechnology has for the last ten years been putting lots of analytical instruments into the biotechnology and generally the life sciences arena and vice versa: the nanotechnologists are using a lot of the skills of the biotechnology field, in order to do their science.’ This illustrated that the narrative about advanced technologies soon ‘becomes very confusing’ for all those that are not experts in the field.

Policy makers tend to focus on the process.

[Louise Fresco, CRISPRcon 2019 Panel Discussion on ‘A Conversation on CRISPR Science and Policy’, 20. June 2019, Wageningen]
Dr Steffi Friedrichs argues that we should step away from concentrating on the process and talk about the products instead (CRISPRcon 2019 Panel Discussion on ‘The Evolution of Innovation: What Drives Societal Embrace or Rejection of Emerging Technologies?’, 20. June 2019, Wageningen).

Dr Friedrichs illustrated that part of the confusion raised in the public was caused, because ‘we tend to go into these debates with a singular noun for a technology and then people are allowed to air whatever their concerns are with regard to that technology.’ She agreed that at ‘the very beginning [of the emergence of a technology], [the singular noun and its debate] is the best thing we can do, but there comes a moment, when we need to be more specific. In the case of genome editing, a separation into discussion topics by fields of application is now necessary, because we can only talk about the numerous benefits in one specific area, if we no longer have the [concerns about] human germ-line editing coming up, every time we want to talk about (agricultural) biodiversity.’

[…] we can talk about the numerous benefits in one specific area only, if we no longer have the [concerns about] human germ-line editing coming up, every time we want to talk about (agricultural) biodiversity.

[Dr Steffi Friedrichs, CRISPRcon 2019 Panel Discussion on ‘The Evolution of Innovation: What Drives Societal Embrace or Rejection of Emerging Technologies?’, 20. June 2019, Wageningen]

The panel discussed their experiences with public engagement exercises on the topic of genome editing in remote areas and rural communities of Africa and India. They repeated a statement that had been made in one of the morning sessions: ‘Policy makers tend to focus on the (technology) process, [but] you also need to look at the context of the community you are speaking to and get away from the approach of ‘I am an expert and I know what is best for you’.’

Can we stop talking about the huge issues?

The panel concluded that we should indeed ‘take this big confusing, complex thing that is the ‘single’ genome editing technique and start talking about what does it do in each field of application and then have a real focused debate.’

Dr Steffi Friedrichs explains why we could and should stop talking exclusively about the big concerns about genome editing, and how this can be achieved (CRISPRcon 2019 Panel Discussion on ‘The Evolution of Innovation: What Drives Societal Embrace or Rejection of Emerging Technologies?’, 20. June 2019, Wageningen).

Follow this link to watch the full debate on The Evolution of Innovation: What Drives Societal Embrace or Rejection of Emerging Technologies?.

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