In July 2018, the EU Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that genome-edited organisms fall under the scope of European GMO legislation. The ruling was received with a sense of disapproval, not only by biotech and agro chemistry companies, but also by life scientists who see the CRISPR/Cas gene-editing system as a ground-breaking tool with immense potential.
‘CRISPR/Cas is often presented as a silver bullet that can solve a broad variety of societal problems, from malaria to food shortage, especially in Africa’, says Phil Macnaghten, professor in the Knowledge, Technology and Innovation (KTI) group at Wageningen University & Research. But critics such as Friends of the Earth on the other hand believe that we need to be very careful with these new technology, as it has not yet been proven that the technique is safe in the short and long term. They also claim that, without regulation, consumers can no longer opt for "honest, original" food.
Supporters and opponents of Crispr/Cas seem to crawl back into the trenches they dug at the end of the last century, when the introduction of genetically modified food was accompanied by unrest and fierce social debate. The debate in Europe about how to govern novel techniques of gene editing is fast developing into an impasse with actors rapidly consolidating positions on either side of the debate.
‘The case of gene editing illustrates the importance and the challenges of establishing responsible dialogues about emerging technologies’, says Macnaghten, who is a leading scholar on responsible science and innovation. In recent papers he analyzes how we arrived at the impasse around gene editing and explores novel ways to move beyond it.
‘Science and technology are not leading us as if by some miracle to the promised land. Scientists must avoid the optimistic utopian approach,’ Macnaghten stresses. ‘If we don’t, we will remain locked in the same situation and will end up in a stalemate in which the same discussion keeps repeating itself. To develop the socio-technical innovations that are needed to harness socially resilient solutions to pressing global societal challenges, such as food security and climate change, an early, constructive and on-going public dialogue is absolutely necessary.’
Since the CRISPR/Cas gene editing technology is still largely to be developed into marketable products, now is the time to open up a conversation with society, both to better understand public concerns so as to be able to integrate societal values into the science, says Macnaghten. ‘And even more radically: to make the science genuinely more self-reflective, particularly in relation to global challenges such as food security that allow for different responses depending on how the issue is framed and defined.’ ‘As social scientists we are not there for the adopting of new technology. We are there for reconfiguring the problem. To bring out hidden narratives’, says Macnaghten. ‘Our mission as social scientists is to be leading in the dialogue with society about how to imagine visions of better future worlds. The key question is not: how do we create support for innovative technologies. The key question is: how can we build a better tomorrow?’
Truly open science
He sees a promising change in science towards what he calls responsible science 3.0. ‘Just think of the increasing importance that the scientific community attaches to public dialogues, here in Wageningen and elsewhere in academia. The current COVID-19 crisis offers a great opportunity to make a leap towards truly open science. Towards a science that is much closer to society and in which people are truly engaged and involved.’
In recent articles and books Macnaghten and co-authors set out the challenges for the scientific community to engage in responsible research and innovation, both to operate as an honest broker and to engage in early, constructive and on-going public dialogue. ‘We set out design principles for an anticipatory methodology in deliberative research on new science and technology. We have already put this principles to use in a recently conducted focus group project called Just Editing. In this project natural scientists, social scientists, ethicists and breeding companies work together to explore public responses to gene editing in livestock en to understand, reflect and respond to ethical and societal concerns.’