Genomics & society: Legal, ethical and social dimensions
- 209 Downloads
George Gaskell and Martin W Bauer (eds.) Earthscan Ltd, London, 2007, paperback, 280pp., £ 24.95, ISBN: 978-1844071142
There can be few topics more amenable to opinions divergent than the question of how society deals with the genomics revolution and the use of genomic information. From the start then, the editors of this book have set themselves the challenge of producing balanced and timely perspectives on the issues.
The book is in fact a selection of 14 papers that were the outcomes of a European Union Framework Programme 5-funded project ‘Life Sciences in European Society’.1 This project, which ended in 2003, brought together a multinational and multidisciplinary group of European researchers joined by other non-European colleagues. A short chapter introduces the context and summarises the key themes.
The collection of papers is divided into three sections: Emerging issues and debates (Chapters 2–5); the efficacy of public opinion (Chapters 6–10) and global perspectives (Chapters 11–15).
The positive impact of this format is that it provides the reader with many interesting vignettes supported by well-documented case studies relating to particular features of biotechnology/genomics and its impact on society and public opinion. One of the most striking outcomes of the case studies, for example, is the great variation in terms of the legislation that has evolved and developed in different countries.
There are several downsides, however, of the format. Notably, the 15 chapters are written by 40 authors, and there is little overlap or cross-referencing between the chapters. Further, the papers do not provide comprehensive overviews of the subject matter at an international level. Other than the short five-page introduction, there is no real overview.
While I have alluded to the challenge of shaping some common themes from disparate viewpoints on the genomics and society debate, I feel the editors could have strengthened and deepened their summary – not everyone will read each chapter so the summary is important. Some glimpses and opinions on what issues we might encounter in this area in the future would also be valuable – even though these will, of necessity, be speculative.
For those who would want to dip into specific issues and know what they are looking for, a number of the individual chapters are very well written and highly informative. The narrative by Hampel et al in Chapter 6 on the pubic perception of agricultural biotechnology and GM crops, for example, introduces some interesting ideas about the impact of public mobilisation on policy. Some chapters, on the other hand, might have benefitted from further rounds of editorial input. For example, Chapter 2 addresses the key question of ‘what is genetic information?’ acknowledging this is a dilemma in many countries, and presenting us with paradoxes but not necessarily any more clarity.
These points apart, it is a comprehensive book, covering a large number of highly relevant themes and topics. For those interested in diving into specific areas, the first section on emerging issues and debates (Chapters 2–5) deals with the special properties of genetic information and in particular medical uses (genetic testing, population biobanks), non-medical uses (forensic testing, paternity testing) and regulatory issues (consent, management, use and ownership). Technological development starting in 1997 with the announcement of the birth of Dolly the sheep and an analysis of the manner in which technologies such as Xenotransplantation and use of stem cells for therapeutic cloning have varied from country to country is covered in Chapter 3.
The Emerging Issues and Debates section also looks at new moral and ethical concerns that have been raised since the late 1970s by biotechnology with a focus on therapeutic cloning and stem cells (Chapter 4) and a report on two studies, one in Sweden and one in Germany, on perceptions of trust in information sources in the context of GM food (Chapter 5).
The Efficacy of Public Opinion section which incorporates Chapters 6–10 variously focuses on: the divergence of public opinion to GM food between the United States and the EU and the regulatory and other influences thereupon (Chapter 6); phases and new forms of features of public participation around the issue of genetic technologies (Chapter 7); media coverage of biotechnology, the role of the media in the formation of public opinion, its relative autonomy and its impact (Chapter 8); the politics of bioethics in relation to stem cells, both embryonic and adult (Chapter 9) and the question of whether genetically modified animals are conceived of as being ‘monstrous’ in public perception (Chapter 10).
The final theme concerns Global Perspectives, which spans Chapters 11–15. Here the first two papers cover the concept of how genes and genetics has entered into the popular culture (Chapter 11) and the contrasts between the United States and Canada in attitudes to biotechnology (Chapter 12). The issues of risks and benefits in the context of transatlantic differences related to GM crops and food are covered in Chapter 13. Japanese perceptions of biotechnology, where the area has been growing significantly, are examined in Chapter 14. The staged adoption and implications of GM soya crops in the United States and Brazil in the context of demand are dealt with in Chapter 15.
In summary, despite the limitations of the book format and the fact that some of the case studies are a few years old now, many of the topics discussed rightly continue to be the subject of ongoing discussion, debate and the development of new policy. In consequence, Genomics & Society will be of particular interest to policy makers, historians of scientific policy and to sociologists of science with an interest in biotechnology and genomics.