Spotlight on genetics

April 01, 2004, vol. 29, no. 7
By Carol Thorbes

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Organizers of a two day conference called Conscience and Science hope to spark discussion about genetics' greatest legacy: society's ability to design its own fate.

Simon Fraser University's office of research ethics has attracted high profile speakers to facilitate public discussion with decision makers and scientists about where genetic technology is taking society.

“It is crucial that we make this connection because our society is on the cutting edge of using biotechnologies to define our future,” says Hal Weinberg, the director of SFU's office of research ethics.

Weinberg organized the upcoming conference, April 28-29 at the Morris Wosk centre for dialogue. The brain behaviour researcher is one of the speakers at the conference, which will be web-cast worldwide.

Weinberg says the speaker lineup was chosen to spark balanced debate about the impact of human genetics and biotechnology on society's evolution.

“The public and many scientists are legitimately concerned about genetic technology threatening cultural and biological diversity of the human species in an effort to perfect and prolong life,” says Weinberg. “But with the right controls and direction, this technology could be used to increase and protect diversity and create a more harmonious society. Our development of such technology may actually be part of the evolution of our species as a whole for the better.”

With the help of the conference's speakers, Weinberg hopes to turn its proceedings into a white paper that will be submitted to the federal and provincial governments.

Weinberg notes that a white paper would be timely, given that federal and provincial legislation limiting the scope of research into human genetics is set to become law.

Sir John Sulston, a chemist and a 2002 Nobel laureate who helped map the human genome, will talk about the importance of not patenting the basic science underlying genetic technology.

Maureen McTeer, a specialist in biotechnological law and ethics, has written extensively about the legal, ethical and public policy issues posed by cutting edge biotechnology.

Her presentation, Patents on the human genome: the implications for the future, will suggest proactive policy measures to address important issues.

David Suzuki, an award winning scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster, is widely respected for his cautionary reflections on how advancing science, development and commercialization are impacting the environment and society.

He will address the extent to which advancements of human genetics is altering the character of the human species.

Barry Beyerstein, an associate professor of psychology and a brain behaviour expert at SFU, will reflect on the extent to which advancing knowledge about human brain function could diminish personal autonomy.

He will moderate a debate between two student panelists, Clara Westhill-Roper and Shakir Rahim, about the Chemical shaping of human traits: panacea or Pandora's box?

With the help of Apple Canada, students in remote classrooms will become online participants in post-debate discussion at the Asia Pacific hall in the Wosk centre.

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