Do you know the feeling you get after having a meal you particularly enjoyed? I’d describe it as something like a warm hug from the inside. That’s how I felt after a symposium I attended last week. It was at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., and it was organized and sponsored by the Council of Scientific Society Presidents (CSSP)—one of the largest science-based leadership development organizations in the world, comprising about 30 scientific federations and societies with a combined membership of more than 1 million scientists and science educators—and The Kavli Foundation, an organization that supports the advancement of science and works to improve the public’s understanding of scientists and their work.
The appetizer was John P. Holdren, President Barack Obama’s top science adviser. He was there to receive CSSP’s Support of Science Award, the society’s highest honor, which most recently was bestowed on Obama himself. The accolade recognizes those who champion U.S. science, free scientific communication, and support of basic research. During his brief talk, Holdren explained that he feels that Obama’s Administration, as it nears the end of its term, has achieved what it set out to achieve in the area of science, technology, and innovation: restoring science to its rightful place. He spoke of the many initiatives undertaken under Obama’s watch, citing, for example, the funding boost for science, technology, and innovation in the Recovery Act and the rebuilding of the White House’s leadership in these areas. He candidly admitted, “I’ve had a great boss!” and his greatest regret is that the President cannot serve three terms. But he also admitted to the many obstacles that still persist for science, technology, and innovation, including underrepresentation by females and ethnic minorities as well as poor public and policy-maker understanding.
The main dish, who was introduced as a “rock star” (and she must have felt like one) and for whom the event was sold out weeks in advance and the auditorium and overflow room were packed with more than 700 people, was Jennifer Doudna, a University of California, Berkeley, professor and pioneer of the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR. CRISPR systems, which use an RNA-guided enzyme to snip genomic DNA at precise locations, are one of the most powerful tools in molecular biology as they allow cells’ DNA to be edited like the text of a document. In similar fashion to the “find and replace” function in Microsoft Word, scientists can now control DNA up to the level of a single letter.
Inevitably, much of the question-and-answer period that followed was dedicated to the ethical use of the technology. CRISPR has the potential to revolutionize medicine because it could be used to fix mutations that cause genetic diseases. There is also the possibility—and Doudna mentioned examples where this has already been done, namely in China and the U.K.—that it could be employed for altering human eggs, sperm, embryos, or other tissue in a way that is inheritable to future generations, also known as germ-line editing. Doudna favored a “global pause” in using CRISPR for germ-line editing to collectively “think how we go forward with it in a way that is ethical” and cautioned that this is a sensitive area to which the different regulatory environments around the world add complexity.
Another theme was public perception, and here, Doudna recounted the incident, from earlier this month, when an Ivy League economist was escorted off a plane waiting on the tarmac because he was suspected of terrorism. The confusion occurred because a passenger saw the professor writing differential equations in his notebook and mistook the writing for Arabic. The audience laughed, but the story clearly demonstrated a large gap in understanding and reinforced the concept of pausing and letting society and its moral code evolve alongside the science. Who needs dessert after that?
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