Livetweeting #GeneEditSummit: Democratized Debate or Segregated Conversations?

Biopolitical Times
A sepia filtered photo of building at Asilomar. On top of the photo is the Twitter brand.

In 1975, scientists engaged in an invitation-only conference meant to encourage self-regulation of a new genetic engineering technology that many thought posed significant threats to the living world: recombinant DNA. This meeting met in Monterey, CA at a resort called Asilomar, a name that would ring on for decades as a purported model for scientists wrestling with the social implications of the breakthrough technologies they develop.

In the past few years, a new suite of synthetic biology tools known as “gene editors” (ZFNs, TALENs, and CRISPR/Cas9) has made possible the widespread and unforeseen consequences of genetically engineering flora, fauna, and ourselves, and “Asilomar” once again became a rallying cry. Yet many[Nature Editorial Board] prominent[Ben Hurlbut] voices[Sheila Jasanoff, Kris Saha & Hurlbut] have pushed back on this metaphorical monolith, noting the 1975 meeting’s extremely insular nature, its structural bias wherein defining risk was left to scientists alone, and its rapidly diminishing usefulness as a model in the modern global context of science and human society.

Cognizant of these critiques—yet tied to the “mythic” Asilomar as one of its principal organizers—David Baltimore, chair of the organizing committee for the International Summit on Gene Editing, opened the meeting (somewhat less insular, still mostly invitation-based) with the following remarks:

…  a lot has changed since 1975. Science has become an increasingly global enterprise …  The public also has become more engaged in debates about science and scientific progress, and the new modes of rapid communication have provided novel platforms for these discussions. At Asilomar, the press participated with the understanding that nothing would be written about what was said until the meeting is concluded. Today, individuals will blog, tweet, and retweet messages about our discussions from within this very room and in real time. Thus our conversations will be widely disseminated, giving rise to real time commentary. [Webcast, Day 1, Part 1, t: ~1:05:00]

Indeed, the organizers of the meeting initiated the Twitter hashtag #GeneEditSummit, and a number of the reporters present at the D.C. meeting participated by replicating scientists’ talking points from the stage.

Center for Genetics and Society also livetweeted the three days of the conference, trying to highlight the critical concerns of a range of stakeholders, from Broad Institute Director Eric Lander:


to Sharon Terry, Genetic Alliance:

to Ruha Benjamin, Princeton University professor and author of People’s Science: Bodies and Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier:

Benjamin spoke on Day 3, as part of a panel called “Interrogating Equity.” Its presence on the agenda represented a welcome departure from many past meetings organized by scientists, but few of the scientists in attendance seemed to engage with the concerns it raised. During the “comments from the floor” period, CGS consultant Pete Shanks asked whether scientists in the room believed that analyses of the social and political implications of gene editing were just “rubbish”—and if so, could they please come to the microphone to say that so a civil dialogue between opposing views could materialize?  The panel’s moderator Françoise Baylis responded in part by illustrating the contours of the debate that she had discovered over the meetings’ three days:

For the first time at this meeting I’ve tried to follow what was happening on Twitter and to try to learn to contribute. I’m sure I’ve made mistakes along the way because I didn’t understand the technology, but I honestly had the experience of participating in two separate conferences, which I thought was interesting. That on the one hand there were conversations happening there, around issues to do with race, around issues to do with disability, that weren’t happening in the room and on the floor, so I think that’s an interesting idea to interrogate, why that is, and I think that may speak to structural issues where people feel capable or empowered to speak in some contexts that they’re more familiar with and used to… . [Webcast, Day 3, Part 1, t: Pete Shanks Q @ 1:40:05; Françoise Baylis A @ 1:43:58]

One of the many questions moving forward from this #GeneEditSummit is: what exactly did tweeting and retweeting accomplish for the sake of democratic deliberation of society-altering technologies? Did it impact the shape of the debate? Did it strengthen the showing of the public in the consideration of how to proceed? If the majority of the voices engaging on the widely disseminated Twitter platform were reporters and members of the scientific and academic research communities, what does this bode for engaging with the “wide range of perspectives” that was called for, among numerous others, by CGS’s Marcy Darnovsky before and at the meeting, UC Berkeley Professor Charis Thompson during the meeting, and the Summit’s organizing committee at the close of the meeting [see Pt. 4]?

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Composite image via Wikimedia Pixabay