Why gene editing needs open science

The power and necessity of public dialogues

Department of Social Sciences

It’s a hot topic with both supporters and opponents: gene editing. Supporters think it’s a ground-breaking tool with immense potential, while opponents are concerned about safety and regulations. Phil Macnaghten, leading scholar on responsible science and innovation, fears an impasse and pleas for science that is genuinely more self-reflective.

This research contributes to Sustainable Development Goal 12: Responsible consumption and production.

What about legislation?

“The case of gene editing illustrates the importance and the challenges of establishing responsible dialogues about emerging technologies,” says Phil Macnaghten, who analysed how we arrived at the impasse around gene editing in his recent papers, and explores novel ways to move beyond it.

Especially the CRISPR-Cas gene-editing system sparks a debate. It’s a new technology that enables genetic material of viruses, bacteria, cells, plants and animals to be changed relatively simply, very accurately and efficiently. This can be done by making genetic changes that result in altered properties, or by adding entirely new genetic information.

“CRISPR-Cas is often presented as a silver bullet that can solve a broad variety of societal problems, from malaria to food shortage, especially in Africa,” says Phil Macnaghten, professor in the Knowledge, Technology and Innovation (KTI) group at Wageningen University & Research and a leading scholar on responsible science and innovation. But critics such as Friends of the Earth International (a worldwide network campaigning on today’s most urgent environmental and social issues, ed.), on the other hand, believe that we need to be very careful with this new technology, as it has not yet been proven that the technique is safe in the short and long term. They also claim that, without regulation, consumers can no longer opt for “honest, original” food.

The key question is not: ‘How do we create support for innovative technologies?’ But: ‘How can we build a better tomorrow?’

Promised land

Yet Macnaghten stresses that “Science and technology are not miraculously leading us to the promised land. Scientists must avoid the optimistic utopian approach. If we don’t, we will remain stuck in the same situation, and will end up in a stalemate in which the same discussion keeps repeating itself.”

That’s what’s happening with CRISPR-Cas: supporters and opponents of CRISPR-Cas seem to crawl back into the trenches they dug at the end of the last century, when the introduction of genetically modified food was accompanied by unrest and fierce social debate. The debate in Europe about how to govern novel techniques of gene editing is fast developing into an impasse, with actors rapidly consolidating positions on either side of the debate.

“In order to actually develop the sociotechnical innovations that are needed to harness socially resilient solutions to pressing global societal challenges, such as food security and climate change, an early, constructive and ongoing public dialogue is absolutely necessary.”


view CRISPR-Cas as a solution to a wide range of societal problems — from malaria to food shortage


are concerned about safety and regulation, and that consumers can’t opt for ‘honest, original’ food anymore

Hidden narratives

Since the CRISPR-Cas gene editing technology is still largely to be developed into marketable products, now is the time to open up a conversation with society, both to better understand public concerns as well as to be able to integrate societal values into the science, according to Macnaghten. “And even more radically: to make the science genuinely more self-reflective, particularly in relation to global challenges, such as food security, that allow for different responses depending on how the issue is framed and defined.”

Macnaghten: “As social scientists we are not there to adopt new technologies. We are there to reconfigure the problem — to bring hidden narratives forward. Our mission as social scientists is to lead the dialogue with society about how to imagine visions of better future worlds. The key question is not: ‘How do we create support for innovative technologies?’ The key question is: ‘How can we build a better tomorrow?’”

The Covid-19 crisis offers a great opportunity to make a leap towards truly open science that engages and involves society

Truly open science

Macnaghten sees a promising change in science towards what he calls responsible science 3.0. “Just think of the increasing importance that the scientific community attaches to public dialogues, here in Wageningen and elsewhere in academia. The current Covid-19 crisis offers a great opportunity to make a leap towards truly open science — towards a science that is much closer to society and in which people are truly engaged and involved.”

In recent articles and books Macnaghten and co-authors set out the challenges for the scientific community to engage in responsible research and innovation, both to operate as an honest broker and to engage in early, constructive and on-going public dialogue. “We set out design principles for an anticipatory methodology in deliberative research on new science and technology. We have already put this principle to use in a recently conducted focus group project called Just Editing. This project unites natural scientists, social scientists, ethicists and breeding companies through collaboration to explore public responses to gene editing in livestock and to understand, reflect and respond to ethical and societal concerns.”

Do you have a question about responsible science? Ask our expert:

Philip Macnaghten

Professor Knowledge Technology and Innovation

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