Nowotny asks what does a social scientist do in the land of genomic promise? The promise (or contract) that binds science and scientists together is the expectation that the public have from scientists, and the scientists aspiration to produce something useful. The pursuit was one of laws, the laws of natural philosophy, but with the concept of ‘law’ as a term taken from society. Yet the aim to supersede the laws of society; science promised access to the kind of laws that could not be bent by kings or rulers – they provided truths above the arbitrariness of the rules of society. For the early scientists, Francis Bacon et al. the promise was the affecting of all things possible, using the experimental method and practical objectives, for the betterment of humankind.
Early promises that have been realised in society include the reduction in working hours with the concomitant provision of more free time, which ironically we fill with the products of other scientific promises, those of technology – mobile phones, TV, travel. As we consider the impact of genomic science, the genomic promise is a global promise where investment flows globally and through decentralised networks. Is genomic science now in the position to take the promise of human enhancement/betterment to a new level?
Nowotny quotes Richard Powers – ”People want everything, that’s their problem”
With genomics we may be entering a second renaissance. Like the original renaissance that put the individual at the centre of the political and cultural world, genomics offers the opportunity to recognise and discover our own individual uniqueness in a deep sense together with our relatedness to each other and to other species.
However, we need to be careful with promises we make, and not betray them. The worry is that we arrive in a situation where post-genomic science ends up meeting a ‘pre-genetic society’ that isn’t ready for it. There need to be bridges that enable society to be ready for these new technologies; these could include citizen science projects. Create space for people’s everyday experience and integrate it as experiential evidence. One such project is personal genomics – allowing people to interface with and explore the question, ‘who am I?’
Nowotny highlights discussion points that will be explored in the afternoon sessions.
From my own perspective, and reflecting on Nowotny’s ideas of promise and ‘betrayal’, it’s worth reflecting on that fact that the human genome project was funded off the back of such a promise – that benefits would be delivered upon its completion.
That we needed the genome sequence goes without saying, but the fact that most scientists knew the answers would not (could not) be immediate was probably known to scientists in a way that it was not clear (or not made clear) to society, or the politicians ratifying the funding. Although we could ponder on whether a government would have provided the funding it did had it known it wouldn’t get immediate results.
If the promise of science in society is one of expectation, I think it’s probably important to be careful managing those expectations. These begin with education about how science works, it’s pace and the absolute need to establish the fundamentals before we seek to apply discoveries to society.