Biotech Imagination: Whose Future is this?

Biopolitical Times
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PLOS Biology, a peer-reviewed open-access journal, recently asked “eight leaders” for their predictions about the next ten years in genetics and genomics. Many responses acknowledge that this task may be impossible; nonetheless, the answers do not waver: “All are optimistic and predict enormous positive impact.”

Is this insider enthusiasm warranted? Should the rest of us be so optimistic?

One thing we can count on is uncertainty – both in the biological systems and with regard to the power of emerging technologies. Contributors Laura F. Landweber of Princeton University and Ian Dunham of European Molecular Biology Laboratory and Wellcome Trust Genome Campus each underscore how much more we have to learn of vast and complex “genome architectures.” They highlight how new findings from more sophisticated whole genome sequencing and data mining are “eroding traditional notions of a gene,” moving us ever further from the “classical reductionist examples from early molecular biology and the idea that molecule X ‘does’ function Y.”

Aside from such concessions of uncertainty, the overall tenor of the commentaries is near-utopian.

None of the contributors mention even widely acknowledged challenges of the genetic future such as data overload, let alone the potential for much more difficult social and legal problems such as new modes of surveillance or lawsuits due to “gene editing” gone wrong.

Meanwhile, examples of the boons of genetic advances range from the practical to the conceptual. Routine genetic sequencing of tumors to provide more precise cancer treatment is mentioned. There is also a prediction that we will soon have precise, personal “miniaturized genomic monitoring” devices capable of reading our bodies for signs of sickness and disease, causing the whole of healthcare to shift from primarily reactive to primarily proactive.

In addition to revolutionary new products on the personalized healthcare market, predictions meander briefly into social implications, maintaining an oddly optimistic gaze. Bartha Knoppers, director of the Centre of Genomics and Policy at McGill University, suggests that genetic information could move us away from today’s contentious human classifications such as gender and ability towards “destigmatized” “subpopulations of risk or resistance” revealed by genomic profiles. It’s an interesting idea, but the trend so far has moved us in the opposite direction: toward genetic information being used to underscore the “biological reality” of human difference.

It seems quite likely that we will have to continue struggling to avoid reifying social categories like gender, race, and ability. In addition, we may have to fight discrimination at newly imagined sites of difference – say for example, against carriers of a particular gene mutation who can suddenly no longer purchase life, disability, or even health insurance.

Unwittingly straining against Knoppers’ colorblind destigmatization prediction, BGI-Shenzen director Huanming Yang predicts that we will sequence “most, if not all, of the species identified on earth” as well as “most, if not all, ethnic groups.” He asserts that this knowledge will help treat diseases and restrict the births of those deemed genetically “abnormal,” and that we will manage to simultaneously honor individual privacy, intellectual property rights, and free access to genome sequencing data because “the future is brilliant and is now.”

But whose future is this?

Missing from these short exploratory essays is discussion of the forces that will be shaping this biotechnological future. There is no mention of societal mechanisms such as regulation or democratic participation. Nor is there any mention of the impact of money, global collaborations among biotech giants, or competing national agendas. This notable absence of actors supports the insidious storyline that biotechnology is an unguided force leading inevitably to human progress; a kind of cellular manifestation of destiny, unstoppable and un-shapeable in its trajectory.

In this view, biotechnology itself is protagonist: an unrelenting [bio]power that asserts itself on all forms of life. The people, the structures, and the money that do in fact guide the specific research goals and ultimate direction of biotechnology are made invisible.

The question posed by PLOS – “But how will society view such developments?” –positions us as passive observers and receivers of exciting advances coming our way. Importantly, the phrasing of the question suggests that while society may view developments in a negative way, the developments themselves could not actually be negative. In other words, it asserts the judgment that people could only feasibly be concerned about the future of biotechnology if they misunderstand. After all, the “leaders” are all in agreement: Utopia is around the (research funding) bend.

It is only this telling of the biotechnological future that makes it possible for one to consider the most ethical option for bioethicists and concerned bystanders to “get out of the way.”

To meaningfully consider the future requires imagination, but the story of biotechnology as heroic protagonist is a fairytale. We must make visible the monetary, social, and political forces determining the direction of genetics and genomics. If we fail to enrich the stories we tell with the context of our times, we risk becoming a footnote to our own future.

Jessica Cussins is a consultant and former Project Associate at the Center for Genetics and Society, currently earning a Master's in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School. She is a regular blogger at Biopolitical Times, Psychology Today, and the Huffington Post.

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