New Biology and Society: Opportunities, Challenges and Myths

31 January - 3 February 2011

Venue: Lorentz Center@Oort

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Aim of the workshop

Driven by amazingly rapid technological developments the life sciences are undergoing a true paradigm shift. They change from studying individual components and small biological subsystems towards seeking detailed understanding of how complete living organisms, including human beings, function in terms of the interplay between molecules, cells and tissues. This quickly expanding knowledge is for instance expected to head for predicting, detecting and curing multifactorial diseases that presently haunt our society. Also we might reach a point where we are able to efficiently engineer living organism precisely to our needs. If these developments, for which we coin the term New Biology, will indeed materialize, they will have an immense impact on our society.

The question underlying this workshop is how our society should deal with the benefits and challenges posed by this profound, powerful and potentially disruptive knowledge. Issues will be classified in three domains: (i) managing the new life sciences, (ii) societal reception and expectations, (iii) normative issues. The workshop will explore and analyse these issues, asking how knowledge building in the life sciences domain should be guided. Challenges and opportunities will be identified and discussed, resulting in specific recommendations to scientists, policy makers, industry and the public at large. Recommendations will be summarised in a paper that will be submitted to Nature or Science. In addition, more detailed accounts will be published to journals, such as Bioethics and Biology & Philosophy.


Focus of the workshop

The workshop will explore and analyse three clusters of issues, all addressing in different ways the question how knowledge building in the life sciences may best be guided and how we can optimally benefit from it.

research societal reception normative issues

Background and rationale

The life sciences have seen many breakthroughs in the past 100 years. Examples are the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA 60 years ago, the sequence of the human genome in 2001 and in the first decade of the 21st century the data explosion due to the development of very powerful technologies (genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, microscopic imaging, etc.). This has resulted in almost complete molecular parts lists of cells, tissues and organisms and now allows us to map their interactions in time and space. Results are revealing the immense, but nevertheless finite, complexity of living organisms. Recent novel approaches in the fields of bioinformatics and systems biology make it possible to analyse and integrate the resulting complex data sets. Biological systems are approached as networks of components (molecules, cells, tissues) that interact in time and space at a wide range of length and time scales. These networks show emerging behaviour that directly relates to basic properties of living organisms. This approach inevitably leads to deep and detailed understanding how living organisms, including humans, function, also in relation to their environments.

Although biology is a field that is notorious for its over-promising, there is little doubt that in the forthcoming decade the above integrative, large scale approach in the life sciences will uncover key aspects of living systems. We can now start to tackle in a systematic and integrated way big biological issues, such as the development of efficient bio-based energy production systems and the understanding of multifactorial diseases that threaten our society. The acquired knowledge would not only create a solid basis for the development of new and effective personalised therapies and drugs, it would also create the fundaments for redesigning living organisms in an infinitely more systematic, purposeful,  and efficient way than is presently possible.

This perspective for the next decade forces us to rethink the way we do research in the life sciences.  The current highly fragmented way of doing research in the life sciences is fully inadequate to tackle the complexity of biological systems. Up-scaling and redesigning of research programs and their funding is essential. One may foresee that we will be dealing with budgets of hundreds of millions Euros and the concerted efforts of hundreds to thousands of investigators from different disciplines, as widely apart as biology and mathematics, each with its own scientific culture and language. New tools to set up, manage and steer international research programs are required.

Necessarily, up-scaling will be accompanied by increased societal and political involvement. Since the life sciences deeply affect many aspects of our individual and collective lives, biological breakthroughs often spark off critical societal reactions. Up-scaling research efforts means that the question how the public will react to new developments will become ever more pressing. Obviously, there will be many positive aspects, such as personalised medicine and effective ways to prevent and cure multi-factorial diseases. However, there will also be negative outcomes, such as the ability to select for or engineer towards ‘improved’ human beings. And even positive aspects can raise tough ethical, political or economic issues, for instance whether personalized medicine will be economically viable, or whether personalization might ‘spread’ to food consumption, where it would come into conflict with other established values like ‘eating together’. If there is one thing the history of technology-society interactions teaches us, it is that new science and technology always has unintended consequences – often beneficial themselves, but sometimes not. If we want to optimally benefit and want to minimise adverse effects, the crucial question becomes: How to expect the unexpected? And who can be held accountable for such adverse effects? What is the proper relation between science, technology and society?

By creating new knowledge, New Biology will create new practical opportunities. But facts and values are never far apart. And new power leads to new responsibilities. What values underlie research in New Biology? And whose values are those? How will the new facts challenge prevailing moralities? What moral controversies are there to be expected? How should public deliberation on these moral issues be facilitated and made fruitful? 

We hardly have started to address these and related complex questions against the background of the powerful knowledge that is expected for the coming decade, despite the fact that developments in the life sciences proceed at a remarkably rapid pace. This workshop intends to identify the major issues in this field, analyse them and make specific recommendations to the scientific community, policy makers, industry and the public at large.


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