Ethics First: A Global Observatory for Genome Editing

Modern science must move away from the narrow question of technology’s safe use to broader questions of what conceptions of human flourishing should guide the application of powerful tools in fields such as biotechnology. The Global Observatory for Genome Editing will help make this happen.

By Sheila Jasanoff

Genome Editing
AdobeStock/Stanislav Uvarov

The Nobel Prize is science’s ultimate accolade. It rewards brilliant breakthroughs that change the conceptual foundations of science, as well as technical innovations that revolutionize how science is done. Less well recognized is the role of the Nobel Prize as a dream-machine: an honor for high professional achievement that also persuades laypeople to regard scientific discoveries as seductive openings into new worlds of possibility.

A striking example is the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin and Jennifer Doudna of the University of California at Berkeley. The two scientists received their widely anticipated award “for the development of a method for genome editing.” But going beyond this simple, factual statement, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences made it plain that this was no ordinary methodological advance. The October 7 press release described the discovery as “a tool for rewriting the code of life.” That language associated this prize-winning discovery with an earlier moment of revelation: the 1953 discovery of the structure of DNA, the famed “code of life,” by James Watson and Francis Crick. And it implicitly suggested that, whereas science had formerly only decoded life, now it had acquired the power to write its own codes, remaking the very stuff of life.

Grand claims like these began swirling around gene editing technologies several years before the recent Nobel Prize and formed the basis for my project as a 2019 Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy. My field is the democratic governance of science and technology. One aim of my work is to make sure that publics, not scientists, carefully deliberate on the purposes of scientific and technological progress and decide on appropriate limits.

Power to define desirable progress needs to rest with the public

In my 2018 book Can Science Make Sense of Life?, I laid out a number of generic moves by which science has taken on the right to govern itself, often without making space for wider public deliberation. Science’s narratives tend to reduce discovery to “eureka moments” of individual inspiration, portray technological advances as inevitable, and dismiss the political and commercial interests that frequently stand behind science. The Nobel press release illustrated all this, from Charpentier’s “unexpected” discovery of the CRISPR/Cas9 “genetic scissors” to the “epoch-making” experiment through which the tool was transformed into a device “bringing the greatest benefit to humankind.”

Such moves need to be made visible and debatable if citizens are to regain the power to define what counts as desirable progress for humanity. The big question, of course, is how. During my fellowship year, I worked to launch what I and my colleagues J. Benjamin Hurlbut of Arizona State University and Krishanu Saha of the University of Wisconsin at Madison call the Global Observatory for Genome Editing. We planned an initial meeting on “Genome Editing and Human Dignity” at the Academy’s Berlin headquarters in the spring of 2020. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the event had to be postponed and completely redesigned. Ultimately, we convened a series of online meetings on September 10–11, 2020.

Clouds sometimes have silver linings, and in this case the delay proved unexpectedly fruitful. Over the summer, we received the good news that the John Templeton Foundation would fund us to launch the Observatory project at a meaningful scale and pursue it for the next few years. The virtual meeting supported by the Robert Bosch Academy thus became an occasion for helping the Observatory’s leadership team to seek immediate input and advice from a distinguished international group of scholars, scientists, legal experts, policy practitioners, and civil society representatives. These conversations fostered connections and networks that will animate the Observatory's mission of building more inclusive dialogue across disciplinary, institutional, and national boundaries. 

Putting ethics and values first

The Global Observatory for Genome Editing seeks, first and foremost, to expand the range of questions arising at the frontiers of emerging biotechnologies and the perspectives brought to bear in addressing them. It will bring together communities that do not normally engage with each other’s positions within existing research, advisory, or policy institutions. By convening participants from diverse backgrounds and standpoints, the Observatory hopes to create opportunities for deeper reflection on a range of scientific and technological developments that are poised to alter the meaning of being human.

Much of the debate on genome editing presumes that these techniques will necessarily be applied to the human germline, possibly altering the course of human evolution. The Nobel press release heightened the sense of inevitability, observing that “it is now possible to change the code of life over the course of a few weeks.” This framing implies that our most urgent need is a set of workable rules to make sure genome editing technologies will not be put to unsafe or unethical use.

Such rhetoric leaves little room for moral and political deliberation because it implies that science has already set in motion the unstoppable wheels of progress. But what if we began at the opposite end, putting ethics and values first and seeking to deepen and diversify the dialogue on the aims of genome editing? This would require us to move away from the narrow question of what constitutes the safe use of technology to broader questions of what conceptions of human flourishing – grounded in which philosophical, legal, and spiritual traditions – should guide the applications of this powerful tool. 

Developing a “cosmopolitan ethics” to genome editing

These are the very discussions the Observatory hopes to promote. Its activities will seek to make visible the connections and discrepancies across the world’s varied systems of practice and belief for protecting the integrity of life. The Observatory will also address the problems of illegitimate appropriation, narrowing, and exclusion that arise from putting science’s interests first and humanity’s purposes second. It hopes to make visible how varied legal and moral traditions address what is deemed immutable or inviolable in our notions of humanness, where these traditions find tangible expression, and how they are informing, or failing to inform, policy debates at the frontiers of biotechnology.

Overall, the Global Observatory hopes to develop a more “cosmopolitan ethics” to guide deliberation in this rapidly expanding field. The virtual international meeting convened in 2020 under the Academy’s auspices proved to be the ideal starting point for discussions that we hope will grow in intensity and significance over the coming years.

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Sheila Jasanoff is Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Harvard Kennedy School and Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy.

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