Here come the rogue scientists

The moral issues arising from the work of Dr He Jiankui, who claims to have genetically ‘edited’ two twin baby girls, have been much explored. The use of gene editing techniques to produce designer human beings offends against some very basic moral instincts about the foundations of human life. How was consent established in this case? And what provision can possibly be made for the unknown unknowns of introducing into the human gene pool genetic mutations that may have unwelcome long-term consequences?

These are important questions. But I have another. Does the work of He Jainkui herald the beginning of the end of the “scientific community” – that self-regulating body of collective expertise that supervises the work of global science?

In conversation with the astronomer Sir Martin Rees for my new podcast series, Confessions, the other day, he spoke of his fear that future science will become increasingly deregulated. And that in the global village of future science, there will inevitably be more ‘village idiots’ who do their own thing. In other words, as some scientific techniques get so much cheaper to reproduce, and as massive computing power is available in our own bedrooms, the threat of rogue science becomes ever-greater.

A few days after the work was made public, He gave a presentation to the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong. He received a decidedly chilly reception. The organisers denounced the “unexpected and deeply disturbing” intervention, and called for closer supervision of genetic experimentation. “Even if the modifications are verified, the procedure was irresponsible and failed to conform with international norms,” they said.

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The chair of the Hong Kong summit, David Baltimore, called the episode “a failure of self-regulation by the scientific community”. As he managed to conduct his work outside the framework of the scientific community, He may be the first of Rees’s scientific ‘village idiots’.

The very idea of a scientific community was grounded in organisations such as the Royal Society. Founded in 1660, under a Royal Charter from Charles II, members would meet to conduct experiments and share knowledge. From its beginnings, science was an establishment business. Before it was professionalised, the scientific community had its origins in the clubs and societies of a well-heeled intelligentsia. And many members were what we might now call amateur scientists.

The Augustinian monk, Gregor Mendel conducted much of the early work on genetics on his peas in the monastery garden. But with the increasing cost of conducting scientific research and the professionalisation of the university where most scientific work came to be concentrated, such amateur scientists became rare birds. Science came to be the preserve of the university professional, with international peer review and ethical oversight.

But science is no longer the preserve of the wealthy. Citizen scientists are making a comeback, in a sort of democratised throwback to amateur scientists like Wren and Boyle. Still confined to data gathering and in conjunction with professional scientific projects, the Citizen Science movement remains largely under the umbrella of the scientific community. But for how much longer?

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It’s a basic human instinct to experiment, to push at the boundaries. That’s why, when given a chemistry set for Christmas, I got the greatest thrill from doing experiments with the chemicals provided that were not suggested by the instructions. That, after all, is how science ‘progresses’.

But with the power that is now available in our bedrooms and garages, the sorts of experiments that we can now conduct – or soon will be – can potentially include very dangerous interventions. Rees has spoke of the dangers, for instance, of experimenting with the flu virus, inadvertently – or perhaps deliberately – producing a strain of that virus that could have devastating effects. The scientific ‘village idiot’ could become a global menace.

The hostility of the scientific community to He’s research – if it deserves that honorific – is as much about the prospect of the power of science becoming deregulated as it is about the ethics of this particular case. Like the ‘international community’ the ‘scientific community’ may become a thing of the past. Or, as Rees suggests darkly, it is possible that our political authorities will have to come up with much more intrusive regulations to meet this threat, including restrictions on our personal freedom to experiment.

Rees is happy to admit that scientists like him have a poor record at predictions. But it is precisely the unknown quality of the trajectory of scientific advance that gives his futurology such a frightening aspect. Science is power, great power. And the idea that the scientific community will be able to contain this power and regulate it, seems to me highly unlikely – and I say that not as a student of science, which I am not, but as a student of politics and human nature.

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“Entropy is the arrow of time”, goes the second law of thermodynamics. It could be seen as a principle of political systems too. Over time, things get more complicated, more messy, more deregulated. With open source science, and the publishing power of the internet, the power of science is available to an ever expanding group of people.

Very expensive experiments like CERN will always be the preserve of nation states, or nation states in collaboration with each other. But there will increasingly be forms of scientific knowledge that are cheap, relatively easy to replicate and dangerous. And the idea that the “scientific community” is able to sweep up all the knowledge they generate and contain it within their own ethical standards looks like a quite a gamble, at best.

According to the Greek poet Hesiod who lived 700 BC, the great god Zeus tasked the brothers Prometheus and Epimetheus with the creation of human beings. Against the express permission of Zeus, Prometheus gave his creation the power of fire, a gift reserved for the gods. As punishment, Zeus tied Prometheus to a rock and had an eagle feast daily on his liver. To Epimetheus he sent the beautiful Pandora, and gave them a stone jar for their wedding present. The jar contained a number of powerful miseries that would plague humankind.

Zeus gave Epimetheus a key to the jar and warned him never to open it. But curiosity over came Pandora. And greed, envy, hatred, pain, disease, hunger, poverty, war, and death all flew out of the jar. Pandora quickly forced the lid back on the jar, but it was too late. These furies were all released upon the world.

It’s just an old story, you say. Well, maybe. I hope you are right.

 

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