When the fall comes, the landscapes that groove the road to the Galibier completely change colors.
Credits: Estelle Vincent
Credits: Estelle Vincent
Go beyond the lab
As genetically modified organism are involved in our project, we had at heart to make sure the kit ensured safety and impermeability to the surrounding environment by choosing the appropriate materials. Nonetheless, GMOs are in general a sensitive subject, this is why we asked for the public’s opinion via a survey. As this survey was conveyed to the French population for a start, the it was made in French.
About the people who answered
Around a hundred individuals answered, of which about 70% are students in their twenties. Around 30% are part of the working class, mainly represented by middle and executive managers from the early thirties to the late sixties.
Genetically Modified Organisms
As expected, people broadly think that GMOs are mainly used in agriculture, but not a high percentage are aware of the complete spectrum of use of GMOs. When asked about what GMOs meant to them, the three words that came out the most were danger, scientific progress as well as the ethical questions they raise. We reckoned that many people also felt uninformed. Thus, it was important to identify the main ways of information they have on GMOs. The internet, followed by television, are the two principal sources of information people have to inform themselves about GMOs. The funny thing is that television usually conveys information when there’s a scandal or discontentment. As for the internet, its research range being infinite, to access the right information, it is essential to correctly look for it because while you can find a lot of useful and adequate information, users can also be misguided by untrustworthy websites.
As a result, more than 60% of the individuals are actually afraid by the GMOs! The main reasons for that are the following:
But eventually, over 70% think it would be necessary to limit GMOs research for 2 main reasons. First, to stay ethically irreproachable. The other reason is that some domains should be more restricted to GMOs research than others and this is not the case yet. The other 30% think we should carry on with researches without taking into consideration any ethical boundaries. The main aspects bothering people when talking about GMOs are that to their mind an organism should not be modified in the first place and the ethical issues they raise.
That being said, this survey was very enriching and we were able to take into account all these results. Consequently, we decided to organise a conference to define the ethical concepts synthetic biology involved, to tone down the false information medias can convey.
Synthetic biology is an emergent field raising many ethical questions. In this context, we organised a conference about ethics in synthetic biology, which was led by Mr Thierry Menissier, director of the doctoral school n°487 “Philosophy, History, Representations, Creation » and responsible for the master’s degree program "Management of innovations". Synthetic biology is defined as a discipline which is halfway between biology and engineering, innovation is at its heart and it is an essential part of it. For Claude Birraux and Jean Yves Le Déaut, innovation is being able to integrate top of the line knowledge at a given moment in a given product or service, aiming at assessing a desire expressed by the people or the society as a whole. This definition can be linked to the political thinking of the Parliament’s members and is therefore somewhat reassuring but also incomplete and restrictive.
From a philosophical point of view, innovation can be defined as the Human capability to destroy philosophical and scientific dogmas, on which ruins it builds new and innovative ideas.
For Thierry Menissier, the conference lecturer, innovation should not be confused with progress. He defines innovation as a post-progressist concept. To him, progress consists of a general evolution and a buildup of rational knowledge that can guide us to happiness. Today he acknowledges that there is a misconception around the idea of progress in the societies driven by technology as they have grown dependent of it and are petrified at the idea that it might suddenly stop.
As we face this crisis, it is important to engage in a reflexion about how to substitute innovation to progress. To this end, we must be able to link technological innovation and the socio-moral strengths that can justify it and give it the impulse it needs in our society. To achieve this, several factors must be taken into account, such as the precaution and the responsibility principles.
Mr. Menissier carried out a survey among students studying human and social sciences asking them about their perception of synthetic biology and genetic editing, coming to the conclusion that 55% of them were afraid of it, 35% were scared but would have felt safe if they knew that the experiments were controlled, and the rest abstained from answering. This demonstrates that scientific innovation in synthetic biology cannot be done without a profound ethical reflexion first.
In the day to day work of a researcher, it is important to distinguish the many normativities by which its work is regulated (regulations and prescriptions, laws, deontology, moral, religion, ethic), be sensible to the eventual conflict that might rise between them and make use of morality to assess any tension.
According to Mr. Menissier it is necessary to let the scientist innovate but at the condition that he also envisions the place his innovation will occupy in our society and nature. Innovation must be given a role in the ethical assessment of innovations.
As innovation comes as the result of several factors, Thierry Menissier asks for a prospective ethic to those who play a key role in innovation. To his mind, the ethical actions of a biologist or any researcher in general must undergo two crucial steps:
As a conclusion to this conference, Mr. Menissier insisted on the importance of pluri disciplinarity while reflecting on ethics. In his opinion, progress is only defined by dynamically confronting these diverse interest.
Go beyond the lab 2.0
As working with databases and patients’ personal data, it was necessary to ensure data confidentiality in our project. Not to seem too indiscreet, we also thought that it was important to ask via the same survey what type of information people were ready to share. As expected, people seemed ready to share basics information such as birth date, gender, socio-professional category, blood group and diets but sharing names and medical history is not a major thing that people would do.
Another aspect to consider is to know in what context people would be ready to share these information. 40% would do it in the context of a laboratory medical analysis, only 22% for a smartphone medical analysis. This means that smartphone medical analysis don’t seem reliable or secure enough to people to share their personal data.
Now, who would have access to these shared information? For the most part, people would share it to the medical community for research, as well as for WHO databases.
Last but not least, in order to facilitate the searches of new infectious sites, people would be ready to share more information such as their recent travels, their precise jobs, their sports… This means that for a specific, explained context, people would be ready to share more information if they have a precise idea of how it would help.
That way, we adapted the information asked at the beginning of the analysis as well as explained who would have access to the information. Further improvements on our application could be performed to better inform the persons who would undertake the analysis.
All in all, what we thought important to remember from this is that people often lack information and this is the very reason why they would not feel comfortable sharing their data or encouraging GMOs research. Human Practices in general were very rewarding not only because of what we learned but also because of what we learned to others via the many events we hosted, as well as the conference organised on ethics. Putting our project back into its real context made us realise how important it was to well inform the population about what is at stake.