Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Speaker presentations now on-line

Seasons Greetings to all readers of our ESRC Genomics Network Conference blog.

Just to let you know, we have started uploading copies of speaker presentations to our conference website.

To select and view these presentations please visit our programme page.

Further presentations, together with a range of images captured during the conference will be available early in the New year.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

A Townhall Meeting in the Global Townhall

Blog post by Prof Steve Yearley, Genomics Forum (on Closing debate – How to Deliver the promise: Where to next?)

The closing session of the conference was advertised as a townhall-style meeting, based on the US tradition of public meetings in which politicians and other public figures have to answer to remarks from the floor with no prior warning and no scripted questions. In the US these meetings conjure up the idea of a politician with their jacket off, sleeves rolled up, engaging ferociously with the audience.

Instead of President Obama or the Tea Party, we had four of our own public figures: Dr Gerardo Jiménez-Sánchez, chair of the OECD’s Working Party on Biotechnology; Rick Johnson, CEO of Global Helix LLC from the USA and a key figure in the Business and Industry Advisory Committee to OECD; Prof Joyce Tait, Scientific Advisor to Innogen; and Prof John Dupre, Director of Egenis. The session was energetically chaired by the OECD’s Iain Gillespie and, in true townhall style, there was no shortage of comments from the audience and some real clashes between speakers’ views.

A persistent theme – as one would expect – was the exact role of social science in deliberations over the ‘promise’ of the new life sciences. Gerardo took the lead in thinking about the OECD’s role in bringing social science insights to bear on policy issues. Rick wondered whether social scientists had really offered many testable claims or hypotheses about life sciences in society and drew us back to Charles Lindblom’s work in the late 1970s on “usable knowledge”. In his view there should be more reflection on how social scientists can make their knowledge and investigations more policy relevant. Joyce thought we social scientists had gained policy sophistication (or at least shed naivety) over the last decade but was inclined to think that too little social science work had been done on product regulation and its connection to life-sciences innovation. John’s riposte invoked the spirit of the famously anarchical philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend, noting that “most scientists tend to understand little more about science than fish about hydrodynamics” (note to John – wasn’t it actually Imre Lakatos who wrote this, even if it sounds Feyerabendian??). Iain then outed himself as a (recovering?) fan of Feyerabend and the conversation turned to the way that social scientists and philosophers can – potentially – observe things about the workings of science, technology and innovation that are not visible to the actors (the fish) who are in the swim of things. Questions from the floor took up the theme of the position of the social sciences – maybe the aim should be a critical analysis of the kind of promise that some life scientists and life-science industries have in mind?

Through a series of exchanges this led us back to the question of whether we see the biotech glass as half-full or half-empty. On the subject of synthetic biology, for instance, John had already commented that advancing knowledge so far seemed only to have confirmed that biological engineering was much more complicated than we had previously supposed. We aren’t much further on than before, but at least we now know we aren’t! Rick and Joyce expressed themselves as much more optimistic about the promise from the life science, but all thankfully agreed that the social sciences had a strong role to play in understanding how the promise is interpreted and developed.

No fights broke out, agreement triumphed and as snow fell ever more insistently I made my way to the stage to record my thanks to the OECD and the EGN, to the Working Party Chairman and to the British Ambassador at the OECD for their kind and painstaking contributions to the organisation of an excellent and path-breaking meeting.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Governance and public engagement in a global perspective

Blog post by Claire Packman, Egenis (on Session 5B - Governance and public engagement in a global perspective)

The session was chaired by Yuko Harayama, the OECD’s Science, Technology and Industry deputy director. She suggested in her opening remarks that there seems to be broad agreement that public engagement is worth doing, that: “The value of science and technology needs to be examined, not just from the academic point of view,”, But how should it be done? As the session unfolded it became clear that different nations have adopted very different approaches.

How the personal is still political: Why food security is about biofuels is about land rights

Blog post by Dr Christine Knight, Genomics Forum (on Session 5A - Food Security and Sustainable Diets)

Professor Steve Hughes from Egenis opened this penultimate session of the conference by congratulating the audience on our endurance – with the end of proceedings in sight, many people’s attention has been diverted by travel anxieties as snow falls outside. With the loss of a mystery speaker from Brazil for this session, Professor Paul Richards has been added to the programme as a respondent to speakers Professor Simon Bright and Dr Benard Muok. This is a session I’ve been looking forward to as I recently organised, but wasn’t able to attend, a similar event on the “politics of plants” at the Green Party Annual Conference 2010, at which Professor Bright also spoke.

Methane not a laughing mattter...

Blog post by Claire Packman, Egenis (on Session 4B - Green Growth and Life Science Innovation for Sustainability)

Methane emissions from livestock may make small children (and possibly not so small) giggle, but as Tara Garnett demonstrated in her talk ‘Livestock and greenhouse gas emissions’, they are in fact quite serious. Livestock account for something between 12-18 per cent of global emissions, and demand is set to double for meat and milk. Tara looked at the technological possibilities for reducing emissions, including increasing yields – “more milk per burp” was her memorable phrase, but concluded that by themselves they won’t be enough.

Psychiatric Genomics in good mental health

Blog post by Kristrun Gunnarsdottir, Cesagen: (on Session 4A - Personalised Medicine: Debating the Promise of Psychiatric Genomics)

The chair, Adam Hedgecoe of Ceasgen opened with an apology for the absence of Nick Craddock, Cardiff Medical School - another victim of the wintry weather.

What can we make of personalised psychiatric genetics in 2010?
  • Mike Arribas-Ayllon, Ceasagen talked about managing promise and complexity: gene networks, unpredictable environmental factors, hard-to-classify patients and psychiatrists who are already very cautious about promising a cure.
  • Maria Arranz, Institute of Psychiatry, London argued that great achievements are reached if genomics can help, even if only minimally, predicting reaction to psychiatric medication. Managing doses and types of medication has always been notoriously difficult.
  • Barbara Prainsack, Austrian Bioethics Commission, argued that direct-to-consumer testing does not lead to more genetic determinism. Consumers/patients/individuals are more sophisticated than that. 

‘Converging Technologies’ a Contested Concept

Blog post by Shawn H.E. Harmon, Innogen (on Session 3A - Converging Technologies: Promises, Programmes, and Practices)

As pointed out by Prof. Robin Williams, Innogen, co-convenor of this panel, the idea of ‘technology convergence’, an idea explored in a variety of ways and sessions at this conference, has a number of meanings and uses.  This session was not so much about how technologies are converging or how science regulation should or can respond to this phenomenon, but rather what we mean by ‘convergence’ and the baggage that the term carries.