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New Biology and Society:
Opportunities, Challenges and Myths
Scientific motivation and structure of the workshop
The question underlying this workshop is how our society should deal with the benefits and challenges posed by the profound, powerful and potentially disruptive knowledge in biology. Issues were classified in three domains: (i) managing the new life sciences, (ii) societal reception and expectations, and (iii) normative issues. These three issues structured the program in that on Monday the workshop concentrated on fundamental changes in the life sciences, Tuesday on what is required for a fruitful debate with the general public, while on Wednesday we dealt with normative questions. Thursday was devoted to wrap-up and make first steps towards a publication on the outcome of the workshop. The morning sessions were plenary; two presentations introduced the issue addressed that day. The afternoon was filled with breakout sessions followed by plenary discussions.
The workshop was attended by 30 persons: 13 biologists, 5 philosophers, 7 sociologists, and 5 of other disciplines. Roughly 20% were in the category ‘young scientists’. One MSc student of the Leiden University honours program participated.
The breakout sessions constituted the heart of the workshop. Breakout groups always were a mixture of disciplines. In the afternoon four groups were assigned each with a different but complementary set of issues to address during an about 2 hours session. This was followed by a short plenary presentation of conclusions of each group (one slide with bullet points each) followed by extensive plenary discussions.
Results of the workshop
The workshop intended to bring together different disciplines from the life sciences and the humanities to explore how to deal with the rapidly increasing biological knowledge that is drastically changing our life. We can profit from this only if our society supports and embraces new ideas and potentials that result from research in the life sciences domain. Obviously, this workshop did not provide definitive answers to these and related questions. However, it did analyse and structure the problem by defining the issues and searching for parallels in other sciences and in the recent past. The unusual mix of disciplines made this an exciting and remarkably fruitful endeavour. Results are presently summarised in a manuscript that will be submitted to a general widely read international journal (e.g. Nature). In addition, one or two papers may be written for a more specialised audience.
The atmosphere at the workshop was open and pleasant, sparking off ample informal discussion in addition to the formal workshop sessions. Dinner at the NIAS in Wassenaar was well-appreciated by the participants.
The organisers want to express their gratitude to the Lorentz Center for their experience, facilities and financial support that were essential for this workshop. In particular the LC staff is thanked for their smooth organisation and support before and during the workshop.