Biotechnology & the Ethical Imagination – A Preview of BEINGS summit by Aaron Levine

By Aaron Levine, Professor, Georgia Tech.

Later this May, I will attend and participate in Biotechnology and the Ethical Imagination (BEINGS 2015). This is an exciting and experimental summit that will focus on advances in cellular biotechnology – including both stem cell science and synthetic biology. The meeting is premised on the idea that the implications of increasing biotechnology power are profound, offering not just potential to improve healthcare, manufacturing and countless other fields but to affect the very future of humanity. The goal is not just to discuss the state of science or the ethics of modern bioscience but to broaden the discussion and draw in perspectives that are often missing at stand-alone scientific or bioethics meetings. Rather BEINGS will bring leaders in science, social science, ethics, business and the humanities together with a diverse set of delegates from roughly 30 countries with the goal of:

  • Establishing an aspirational vision for the highest uses of new cellular biotechnologies.
  • Reaching consensus on reasonable guidelines for cellular biotechnologies.

beings-logoIn an attempt to achieve these daunting goals, the conference will be divided among 5 major topics – an extended discussion of the potential goals for cellular biotechnology, drawing not just on the expertise of scientists like George Church, but also humanists like Margaret Atwood – both of whom are “distinguished faculty” at the summit. The venue is the amazing Tabernacle in Atlanta (see image below).

Conference attendees will also dive more deeply into the use of cellular biotechnology to create new organisms and explore the potential dual use concerns surrounding advances in biotechnology. Finally, substantial attention will be given to issues associated with the ownership of the fruits of cellular biotechnology and the related question of the rights, obligations and roles of those who serve as donors to facilitate biotechnological advances. BEINGS venue

The beginning of the meeting will feature short presentations and panel discussions led by what the summit terms “distinguished faculty.” These include George Church, Margaret Atwood, Arthur Caplan, Steven Pinker, Ruha Benjamin and others, all of whom should raise issues for the delegates to consider as they begin the delicate process of drafting guidelines during the last two days of the meeting. Ultimately this process of drafting and revising guidelines will continue throughout the summer and fall with the hope of producing a document that can help shape the future of biotechnology research around the world.

This is certainly an ambitious project and there is no guarantee of success. But, given all the recent attention that advances in biotech have raised, such as the use of CRISPR/Cas9 to edit human embryos, the time is right for this effort. And while it’s certainly not clear what the final outcome of the summit will be, I’m looking forward to participating and seeing where it leads.

If you’d like to learn more about the summit, please visit the website. And, if you’d like to participate, please register and plan to join us in Atlanta from May 17 to 19.