No one denies that there are difficult issues raised by the breakneck pace of development in the life sciences. It doesn’t take much foresight to see that techniques for potentially dangerous genetic manipulation (designer viruses, anyone?) will be widely available in the not too distant future. Dystopian visions like the mis-named Bill Joy’s are the result.
A recent paper by the University of Maryland’s John Steinbruner concisely sums up the problem. “The capacity to alter basic life processes is not remotely matched by the capacity to understand the extended implications. For the foreseeable future, moreover, that imbalance in the state of comprehension is much more likely to accelerate than to diminish. It is not realistic to expect that the current momentum in fundamental microbiology will extend to the many other disciplines necessary to assess the evolutionary process as a whole. As a result, the human species is relentlessly acquiring power far in excess of tis vision and is thereby posing monumental problems of prudential judgment — problems that it is not yet conceptually or institutionally equipped to handle.”
Interestingly, Steinbruner believes the dangers come far more from dangerous unintended consequences of research than from terrorism.
But what would be the consequences of an international science police, as advocated by Steinbruner? “The University of Maryland arms control expert is calling for an international body of scientists and public representatives who would authorize scientific research that carries potential for grave social consequences The oversight system he envisions would be mandatory and it would operate before potentially dangerous life sciences experiments are conducted. Even if the line of inquiry wins approval, access to results could be limited to those whose motives had passed muster under the proposed framework.”
A licensing scheme would have “a devastating chilling impact on biomedical research,” according to American Society for Microbiology president Ronald Atlas. He advocates self-regulation. Atlas’s assessment of the “chilling” effect on research seems right, but I fear in the febrile state of global policymaking circles in response to terrorism, Steinbruner’s scientific Big Brother may be realised.
Al Jazeera is reporting the end of the Saddam regime. The BBC reckons the regime has crumbled. Their reporter in Baghdad, Andrew Gilligan, says, “The tipping point has been reached.”
Dave Winer’s take on some recent history: “We push forward with weblogs with work that would make Jefferson and Franklin stand up and cheer. JFK would love what we’re doing. We’re not asking what the Internet can do for us, we’re doing good works for the Internet.”