Biosciences in Society During the Last Decade

This decade is now over.* Not soon enough, most of us say. The decade is passing away unmourned and still unnamed. (Personally, I’m rooting for “The Zeros”.) But what did the decade mean for Biosciences in Society?


As I discussed in an earlier post, we need a name for a new area of academic inquiry, one that overlaps many other fields, but has distinctive characteristics. I call it Biosciences in Society. It grows out of bioethics, but it is not primarily about clinical decisions or about the treatment of research subjects. It addresses ethical questions, but also legal, policy, and social issues. And it covers the breadth of the biosciences. I think it is largely a product of the last decade. This blog post is a first, quick, and unresearched effort to explain its origins. I apologize for any oversights (particularly involving work done by the first two U.S. presidential bioethics committees) and look forward to comments and criticism.

Of course, since the inception of bioethics, advances in the biosciences have been among that field’s crucial subjects. The prospects of cloning and of prenatal genetic selection of children were major topics for discussion in the late 1960s and early 1970s, around the time of the birth of the Hastings Institute. But those were discussions well ahead of their time. Exciting, titillating, good for fund raising, but not yet grounded in any serious reality. There were biosciences advances that were having real effects, such as organ transplantation, kidney dialysis, and long-term ventilator support, but those fell largely if not entirely within the realm of clinical bioethics.

Recombinant DNA provided the first real subject for Biosciences in Society. The early 1970s discovery of how to move genes between organisms raised both safety and moral concerns, concerns that were assuaged (or managed) in the United States by the February 1975 Asilomar conference, the proposed limited moratorium on experiments, and the eventual creation by the NIH (under Congressional pressure) of the Recombinant Activities Committee, or RAC. That discovery also gave birth to the modern biotechnology industry with its consequences for everything from patent law to university operations. From then until now, the ethical, legal, and social implications of genetics (or ELSI, as it came to be known in the late 1980s) have been a major subject of interest – in academia, in courtrooms, in legislatures, and elsewhere.

But until the last decade, genetics has been nearly alone in sparking great concern – and academic interest – in Biosciences in Society. In vitro fertilization and other new forms of assisted reproduction, a reality since the birth of Louise Brown in 1978, have garnered attention, some in conjunction with genetics and some independent of genetics, but, at least in the United States, the legal and regulatory sides of this revolution have been stunted, I think as one consequence of our peculiarly difficult abortion politics.

In 1989 James Watson, newly appointed to head the American side of the Human Genome Project, promised to spend 3 percent of the total research funding on ethical, legal, and social issues arising from genetics. That funding was, undoubtedly, a result of the social concerns about genetics – I suspect that Watson saw it, correctly, as an essential tax to be paid to allow the research to go forward – but it was also the birth of increased attention and increased concerns. The ELSI programs (mainly in NIH but also, to a small extent, in the Department of Energy) have paid not just for research projects but, effectively, for researchers, many living on soft money from ELSI, enabling both the university-based and independent bioethics centers to expand by attracting and training new researchers from many different disciplines. Biosciences in Society is an immediate product of ELSI.

But until this past decade, Biosciences in Society was, effectively, only ELSI, and limited to genetics. The announcement in February 1997 of the birth of Dolly the sheep generated some interest, but cloning was at least as much a genetics story (the perfect genetic copy) as it was a story of embryonic development. The first real turning point, whose social consequences were not much recognized at the time, was the announcement in November 1998 by James Thomson that he had successfully isolated and maintained human embryonic stem cells. The federal government and several states had begun to consider regulating human cloning, but embryonic stem cells held out the hope, or threat, of somatic cell nuclear transfer, possibly with widespread medical applications.

Of course, there had been earlier discussions of the use of “prebirth” tissues in research and medicine, first with fetal tissue in the late 1980s and then with embryonic research in the 1990s. (My own first foray into what I would now call Biosciences in Society was as lead author of a committee report on the clinical and research uses of human fetal tissue in 1989.) In particular, the NIH Human Embryonic Research Panel and its 1994 report were important steps. But that bioethics work was somewhat limited – its focus was on federal funding. The important players were the federal Administration and Congress; there just wasn’t enough diversity or change to keep up a major research commitment to social issues.

Human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) changed that, particularly after President George W. Bush’s August 2001 decision to limit federal funding for their research uses. This time, mainly because of the perception of enormous medical and economic advances but also because of the political opportunities the research presented for party differentiation, in the U.S. and elsewhere, the issue exploded into many venues, with many legal variations and many forms of implementation, all of which called out for analysis and discussion by philosophers, physicians, scientists, theologians, social scientists, lawyers, and others. And the ELSI program had created a host of people from those fields who were comfortable talking, writing, and submitting grant applications on these kinds of topics.

The second big change was the new surge of interest in neuroethics. Again, there had been past periods of great interest in neuroscience, including the mind control issues that arose in the last 1960s and early 1970s, but, as with genetics and embryo research, new techniques created new possibilities and new interest. For neuroethics, I think the main player was functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which made it possible to see, in detail, inside a living brain. Starting about 2002, shortly after the late 1990s surge in scientific publications on human fMRI, conferences, workshops, articles, and books about neuroethics began to proliferate. As with embryo researchers, some of the researchers in neuroethics had been trained in ELSI. And interest in neuroethics continues.

So, in my view, the past decade started with ELSI researchers in genetics but added serious research interest in embryonic stem cells (and some related side-lines, like human/non-human chimeras) and in neuroethics. Some excellent researchers work only in one of these fields, but many work across the fields, combining some genetics work with some hESC work or neuroethics work. And, we hope, bringing useful insights from one area of biosciences to another. The fields have coalesced into something bigger, the thing I call Biosciences in Society.

Of course, funding, at least in the United States, is still most generous for genetics. Whether funding sources will expand to support substantial research into the ethical, legal, and social implications of other areas of the biosciences remains to be seen. Also open is the question whether there will be more biosciences exciting this kind of research interest. Some contenders include synthetic biology, nanotechnology, possibly immunology, and who knows what else. Typically the topics that have generated Biosciences and Society interest have not just been biosciences areas that have shown signs of becoming regular features of our societies, but ones that have seemed, somehow, to implicate questions of our human identity – our genetic identity, our developmental identity, and our mental identity. Will other bioscience areas, with social importance but without these kinds of philosophical or religious overtones, be equally interesting? Time will tell.

Hank Greely

* Pedants might want to end the decade on December 31, 2010, in keeping with the pedantic (and logically correct) dating of the start of the millennium to January 1, 2001. Yet “decade”, “century,” and “millennium” are words and, at least in English, their meanings are ultimately defined by usage, not by dictionaries or an Academy. Besides, we needed to get this decade over with.