Millennia of human evolution have brought us to this tipping point, where the most potent technologies developed by humans can change the course of the future. Genetic science is one such technology and it wields the power to change our very structure from within. It’s no surprise then that this technology is questioned and debated upon year after year. But in addition to debating the ethical considerations of using it, we must also consider the implications of not applying it when it has proven potential in making human lives better.
The rapid advances being made in genetic science in this decade point to the urgent need for discussions on how we will use these technologies to create a better future. The onus lies on academicians and researchers to take the first step towards creating a culture of transparency when it comes to discussing genetic research.
Trust becomes the focal point of this conversation and there are some measures that can be undertaken to nurture it. To begin with, evidence-based claims must take centre stage so as to provide authentic and peer-reviewed research, not just for the scientific community, but also for media and public consumption. Faith in new advances can only be strengthened if research is accessible and reproducible.
A number of myths surrounding genetic research and its applications have made it difficult to provide a different perspective to the community at large, where fear and misinformation sway opinions against this technology. The most widely held belief is that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) pose a health risk, when there is no scientific evidence that backs this claim. Similar concerns about GMOs damaging the environment are also based on insufficient data and misinformation, which act as a roadblock to the advancement of this technology. As for the concerns about genetic science being a new and therefore untested, unregulated and unsafe area of scientific research, one has to only look at the several safe mainstream applications that genetic engineering has had for decades.
Genetic engineering has made significant contributions to society since the late 20th century and has provided the world with robust and pest resistant crops leading to higher productivity, recombinant insulin to tackle diabetes, and pathbreaking prognostic and diagnostic tools.
Genetic science has enabled us to explore new avenues of applications and develop solutions to address large-scale problems such as nutrition and food supply in agriculture, and management of vector-borne diseases in public health. This technology can especially revolutionise social reform efforts in nutrition, public health and environmental stewardship. The indelible and undeniable role of genetic science in improving the quality of human life needs to be acknowledged.
Representatives of academic and scientific bodies must therefore look at participation and informed consent as the two most important tools to create a channel for meaningful conversation with the people. By shaping communication about genetic science around the core pillars of consent, transparency, accountability, sustainability and awareness, we can create a circle of trust in which free-flowing information about genetic science is the metaphorical line that connects the dots. To effectively execute this strategy, more and more debates and discussions involving the scientific community, policymakers, social workers and the common people of the country should be facilitated.
The scientific community can address people’s concerns, explain the benefits of genetic science and adopt suggestions from the public to make this area of science more accessible and acceptable. The media plays a very important role in supporting this conversation. But the enormous responsibility of enabling genetic research to fulfil its potential of solving global problems lies on the shoulders of experts who conduct research and advocate the technology. It is imperative that scientists weigh in with their opinions, encourage others to look at all the facets of the research and consider the social and ethical implications involved.
It is important to understand that these efforts must ensure the involvement of all stakeholders to get a holistic perspective on benefits as well as risks and disadvantages, so that each individual can truly have a say in the applications of genetic science. We must also remember that when it comes to genetic science, no matter how important the end goal may be, it is equally important that we achieve it with justifiable means.
Group Leader, Tata Institute for Genetics and Society