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By John Russell

August 15, 2003 | How is it possible to gather so many distinguished luminaries on a single panel -- Francis Collins, Arthur Caplan, Francis Fukuyama, and J. Craig Venter, to name a few -- and shed so little light?

Attendees at the bioethics roundtable “Scientific Exploration: Should There Be Limits?” at the BIO 2003* conference might well have asked themselves that question after listening for two hours to 10 prominent figures from bioscience, religious, ethics, and media communities wrangle politely over world hunger, human cloning, stem cell research, and the rocky relationship between science and religion.

Moderated by George Strait, former ABC science writer and now assistant vice chancellor for public affairs at University of California at Berkeley, the panel’s discourse was fascinating but predictably inconclusive. It demonstrated how difficult it is to find anything but the blandest common ground on bioethical issues. No doubt the failure to focus on one or two topics and dig deeper permitted participants to amiably disguise the deep divisions between them.

It’s hard to imagine, for example, the Rev. Bob Edgar’s plea for a formal partnership between religious and scientific communities to determine what research may be pursued being taken too seriously by Simon Best, president of Ardana Bioscience, which cloned Dolly the sheep without any such guidance. Perhaps next year’s panel will narrow the discussion to a few topics to better crystallize issues and pursue strategies for solutions.

Nevertheless, this year’s bioethics panel was worth the listen. Consider the star-studded cast: Best; Caplan, director, Center for Bioethics, University of Pennsylvania; Collins, director, National Human Genome Research Institute; Kevin Fitzgerald, chair in Catholic healthcare ethics, Georgetown University Medical Center; Fukuyama, ethicist and philosopher at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University; Venter, president, The Center for the Advancement of Genomics; the Rev. Edgar, general secretary, The National Council of Churches; Florence Wambugu, CEO, A Harvest Biotech Foundation International (AHBFI); and USA Today biotech reporter Elizabeth Weise.

This prominent but incongruous group agreed on one point: Genetic research makes the public nervous.

“They (the public) don’t see or understand the big technological engine that’s humming behind the curtain somehow,” Caplan said. “When we specifically focus on genetic change or brain intervention or artificial organs, [they think] we’re out of step with what’s possible.”

There is a fear, Caplan said, that politicians can’t control science and that religious values don’t seem to be reflected in or shaping what’s going on. 

“I think there’s a sense in which a small cadre of guys in white coats, somewhat familiar from Hollywood movies, are making little things in the basement, that leads people to grab their pitchforks and show up at the door saying, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing in here, but you’re going to make my life potentially dangerous.’ That gap has to be bridged.”

Precisely how (or whether) to build that bridge is a matter of some debate. The Rev. Edgar noted, “The Christian church tends to have its feet firmly planted in the ninth century, and we sometimes get to issues 20 to 30 years late,” coaxing a laugh from the audience. “There are those of us who have stood up against the Jerry Falwell crowd and Pat Robertson crowd and find it important to say, ‘We’re not them.’

“The only limit for those of us from the moderate to progressive church is the issue of cloning: The development of a whole new species of human beings is a line that we’ve drawn and don’t want to cross,” Edgar said. “Technology will not save us. Thoughtful human beings will save us. I would say there’s got to be a partnership between science and religion. We just don’t see that happening.”

Don’t look to the media for bridge construction, Caplan said: “The media is not one to act as a public education service, but it wants a great story and a great story is interesting [like], ‘We think this thing that’s now being engineered will kill you.’”

In the end, the panel was mostly about opinion snippets (see Bioethics Sound Bites). However, Wambugu, a native of Nairobi, Kenya, injected a sober note. Her position was quite clear: Africa and other underdeveloped regions are not enjoying the fruits of the biotech and biomedical revolution, and they need help. This raised the thorny issue of acceptance of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Caplan offered: “I’m always troubled when I hear the GMO discussions. I know that it’s hard to go the natural food store and find much natural except salt. I know that most of what’s there has been engineered, some of it by firing radioactivity at the genome to make mutants appear and then doing things with them.” Most people have no idea how their meat is prepared or the food is made, he said.

At least part of the answer, Wambugu said, is a more effective information outreach to explain the benefits. In any case, she said, Africa needs help now. On this point, the panel could hardly disagree.

*BIO 2003 (Biotechnology Industry Organization): Washington, D.C., June 22-25.

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