Low Plaza

Living with the Genie Conference March 5-7 Examines Governance of Scientific and Technological Change

By Suzanne Trimel

As progress gathers speed in the Human Genome Project and experiments in cloning and biomedical technologies raise fundamental questions about scientific advancement, Columbia will host leading researchers in bioscience, government officials, entrepreneurs, ethicists, philosophers and authors on campus March 5-7 to debate urgent issues about how society should manage science and technology:

  • Who should guide decisions about the goals and end products of science and technology in a democracy?
  • Should moral, social and human interests shape these outcomes?
  • Must progress benefit the greater collective good around the globe?
  • What role should the market play in influencing research and its outcomes?
  • Who decides whether or when constraints should be applied to the products of scientific inquiry?

Titled "Living with the Genie: Governing Scientific and Technological Transformation in the 21st Century," the conference will bring together 300 prominent figures for three days of discussion that organizers hope will be the first step toward the development of a new social contract between the scientific community and society as a whole -- one that more closely mirrors the aspirations of a democracy and that opens the scientific process of discovery and particularly its outcomes to more meaningful discussion by democratic institutions and better accountability of the scientific community. The conference is a joint effort of Columbia's Center for Science Policy and Outcomes and the Funders' Working Group on Emerging Technologies.

Scientists and non-scientists will debate key points: What do we expect from scientists? What are their responsibilities? What framework can be developed to weigh the benefits of new technologies versus the costs; for instance, those that may harm the environment or create social disruption?

Panelists will include: Bill Joy, chief scientist and co-founder, Sun Microsystems; Philip Kitcher, Columbia University professor and author of "Science, Truth and Democracy"; John Podesta, visiting law professor, Georgetown University and former White House chief of staff under President Clinton; Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize winning author of "The Making of the Atomic Bomb"; William Janeway, vice-chairman, Warburg Pincus; Gordon Conway, president, The Rockefeller Foundation; Columbia President George Rupp; Ray Kurzweil, inventor of innovative technologies and author of "The Age of Spiritual Machines" and "When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence"; Carol Greider, molecular biologist and oncologist, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Mitchell Kapor, computer entrepreneur and Lotus 1-2-3 designer, and Arlie Hochschild, sociologist and author of three New York Times notable books of the year, including "The Second Shift" and "The Managed Heart." All sessions will take place in the Rotunda of Low Memorial Library. Click for a conference schedule and a list of participants.

The conference comes at a time when science is bursting with discoveries -- major breakthroughs in the biological sciences are occurring with a speed that could not have been predicted. But the pace of discovery is jarring and leads many to question whether the benefits of scientific progress are being adequately weighed in the context of human values and interests.

Participants will be asked to consider how, in a democratic society, scientific progress can be measured in the context of social, economic and political goals?

"Do we want the benefits of biomedical science, for instance, to be evenly distributed across the entire population?" asks Michael Crow, executive vice provost at Columbia. "Or do we want the situation to be one where we develop advanced genetic tools and only the richest folks in our society benefit from them? Well, it's obviously the first and not the second but the path we're on right now is where we develop technological solutions that only benefit the very rich." He points to the tragedy of HIV infection in Africa as an example. Drugs benefit only a tiny segment of the infected population worldwide while the virus continues to mutate and evolve and kill more people in parts of the globe where drugs are unavailable. "Ultimately this will create a global threat beyond the menace it is now," says Crow.

Crow and his colleagues at Columbia's Center for Science, Policy and Outcomes in Washington, D.C., an intellectual center that will co-host the conference, believe that social and human interests should be analyzed in advance of the process of scientific funding and discovery, not at the point at which a breakthrough is made. Crow points to experimental cloning to highlight this need.

"Five years from now we could get a consensus among scientists that each of us needs a small cloned embryo of ourselves developed just far enough so that if our liver gives up or our heart starts to go, we can take the embryo cells and use them to prolong our own life. The question is: do you want to do this? What we're suggesting is that it's now time to consider these questions. Let's not wait until we can do something scientifically before we decide to think about what that means to us as citizens of a democracy."

Society should demand a greater say about the outcomes of research, Crow insists, both from the scientific community and from political leaders. The conference is intended to begin a conversation toward realizing this goal.

"Who is responsible, if the scientists aren't responsible?" he asks. "Who should think about what we should do, what we could do, what we might do and what we shouldn't do? We think that these questions can only be a conversation among scientists, politicians, economists, philosophers, religious figures and others." The conference, he said, is a first step toward an understanding of how to govern the progress that confronts us today. "Don't tell us that you can't," Crow cautions those who may resist his suggestion that science should be governed at all. "Because if you can't, then we might as well sit back and say, 'whatever happens, happens.'"

Faculty members are invited to participate. Those wishing to do so should contact Suzanne Trimel in the Office of Public Affairs, smt4@columbia.edu

Published: Feb 27, 2002
Last modified:Sep 18, 2002

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