NEWS

Watchdogs observe and predict

What is the relationship between the crisis in universities and research development? There is a relationship, which is due to universities’ financial weakness. The fact that all states, at least in Europe, have cut back sharply on research funding for universities, especially in the fields we’re discussing, and the fact that research in those fields is very expensive, lead scientists to seek the necessary funds from private enterprise. But from the moment that happens, the nature of research changes. It is adapted to what the buyer of the research regards as necessary. However, if we want research to be for the whole of our society, then universities must have the necessary means to conduct the basic research which produces knowledge that we need, and not to transform universities to subsidiaries of private companies. Power and knowledge Francis Bacon said that the democratization of power is possible only with the democratization of knowledge. Do you agree? Absolutely. This was our starting point when we set up the first bioethics committees and when we define their obligations. Science is not something that develops behind closed doors, it isn’t something the scientist does without a public accounting. It takes place within society, that’s why its democratization is not only unavoidable but absolutely necessary. What is the role of a bioethics committee? It has a dual role. First, it must observe, as intensively as possible, the advances in biogenetics because it is a technology, like informatics, which is constantly developing. What we know today will be out of date tomorrow. For this reason we need a body, a committee, that will follow developments and inform both Parliament and the government to enable them to take the necessary decisions. (Its job is to) observe and predict. It’s not enough to provide information on what is going on at the moment; it must be able to see what will happen in the next few years, what the social consequences of biogenetics will be, so that legal or other measures can be taken. Secondly, and even more importantly (this is included in the German committee’s founding charter), it must inform citizens and spark public debate. Only through public discussion can lawmakers be informed about the reactions of society and include them in their decisions. Given the speed of developments in laboratories, is it feasible for the consequences of a discovery to become clear? What is lacking at this moment – and the committee exists to correct this – is transparency. Research is carried out within the community. The researcher must not forget that his work concerns society, because it affects it. He is absolutely free, but he has the obligation to inform. The committee is what will explain, will inform, will allow discussion. How effective can laws be in the case of biogenetics, which evolves so rapidly? The laws we need in biogenetics are different from the those which we’ve been used to. Classically, laws reflect the legislator’s decisions without time limits. In the case of biotechnology, the constant changes oblige lawmakers to make temporary decisions. A time limit is set within which the decision must be revised, depending on the evolution of technology. Legislators must explain that the decision is temporary and within this time period, debate will continue. The debate should be the obligation of the legislator. Can we see an end to biogenetic discoveries? We must avoid one thing: thinking that we can set limits on science. Science is based on curiosity and curiosity cannot be limited. So what needs to be done is to ensure transparency and public debate. When we secure these, then we will be able to set limits.