Sheep, robots and communicating science
A few years ago, when I was President of Dublin City University, we sought planning permission to construct a building for DCU’s National Institute for Cellular Biotechnology. The Institute was (and is) working on some really significant health and life sciences issues, including treatment for cancer and diabetes. The building we were planning (which you can see here) was a pleasing design, and was to be placed well within the campus perimeter. It could not possibly have inconvenienced anyone. And yet we found a determined group of locals resisting the planning application. It took us a while to discover what was bothering them: for some bizarre reason they believed we were going to do research there on cloning humans. This was not too long after the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh cloned Dolly the sheep, and the good citizens in DCU’s neighbourhood had decided to believe that we were about to take all this a step further. And they weren’t going to let us.
Of course the Institute had no intention whatsoever of cloning anyone, but it took us a while to convince the residents of this – but when we did we were able to proceed with the building, at which point I took a direct role in getting the construction under way. Well, I didn’t actually drive the digger. But I digress.
Recently I heard a talk at which it was explained to me that some scientists and engineers believe they may not be too far off being able to build a robot that will be operated not with the help of en electronic motherboard, but with specially grown biological brain tissue. If this works, it may not be too long before such robots could become self-aware autonomous units. Does this bother you?
And what about the concerns expressed recently by a working group of the Academy of Medical Sciences about the potential impact of putting human brain cells into primates (monkeys), and the potential ‘humanising’ effects of such experiments? And of course the use of embryonic stem cells still causes heated debates.
But actually the list if potential ethical issues could stretch for miles, depending on whom you ask and what it is that keeps them awake at night. Equally, you may find people who simply cannot believe that we agonise over the ethics of research that could help millions, save lives and generate supplies of food.
Research ethics committees are now all over the higher education system, and their work is vitally important. But that’s not what I am addressing here. It’s not just about assessing ethical dilemmas, it is about communicating what these issues are really all about. Why would a group of concerned citizens in North Dublin get hot and bothered about human cloning? Surely it’s a sign that we are not explaining the role, potential and impact of science well enough. As scientific research gets closer to some really important solutions to health issues, we need to ensure that what the scientists are doing is understood by the wider population, because if that does not happen, what we’ll face is not considered judgement but populist knee-jerk reactions. And that will help nobody. In Britain there is an annual Science Communication Conference, and there are other initiatives to bring science to the people. The academic community needs to encourage and develop such initiatives.