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Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Opportunities and challenges in the “age of biology"

Keynote Address: The 21st Century ‐ the Age of Biology

Blog from Global Forum On Biotechnology - The Evolving Promise Of The Life Sciences

The Genomics Forum and OECD-produced “Global Forum” conference; entitled The Evolving Promise of the LifeSciences, took place in Paris on 12 November 2012.  The Global Forum set out to explore the changing perceptions of what the biotechnology revolution has delivered during the last 30 years, and the impact current perspectives might have on the future evolution of the life sciences.

The event commenced with a keynote address from Professor Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Advisor to the President of the European Commission, on The 21st Century – Age of Biology.  In setting the scene for the subjects the Global Forum would deliberate, Professor Glover – who has a background in molecular and cell biology – recognised the importance of considering where both science and society is positioned in terms of biotechnology and what the future might bring.

Professor Glover identified that historically, each of the last few centuries had been recognised for developments in philosophy and technological thinking, with the 19th century being the age of engineering and the 20th century the age of chemistry and physics.  The technological developments during these times brought benefits to society, although many of these – such as the internal combustion engine – were initially seen as being provocative and even dangerous.

Building upon the scientific advances of previous centuries, the 21st century could be viewed as “the age of biology”, Professor Glover stated.  However she also pointed out that because life sciences and biotechnology largely centres on what is “hidden” to most people, this presented challenges in the acceptance of emerging technologies.  This is often because the language used by scientist to convey the latest biotechnological advances in the life sciences is frequently impenetrable to ordinary society.  This raises doubts about the validity or desirability of manipulating biological processes and systems, even when such technology can potentially result in, for example, the development of new treatments for diseases, or crops that are resilient to drought.

Professor Glover further suggested that a major contributory factor to society’s apparent resistance to emerging biotechnology also stems from the fact that the pace of technological change has become so rapid, which can make issues relating to life science complex and lead to confusion.  This is not to say that society is un-accepting of rapid technological development per se. as the ongoing and rapid adoption of changing technologies for data storage demonstrates.  However, controversy around biotechnological advances (such as GM crops) exists – Professor Glover indicated – because scientists and policy makers have not engaged the public strategically in relation to these.

The solution to a lack of understanding – and associated mistrust – around emerging biotechnology will only be achieved through adequate communication, Professor Glover concluded.  Scientists and policy makers need to speak in a language that everyone can understand, and they must also provide citizens with tools to look objectively at both the risk and the rewards that can stem from emerging biotech.  Ultimately, it is only by opening up such a debate that we can progress into an age of biotech that provides huge potential for offering solutions to global and individual challenges.    

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