Scientists Can’t Be Trusted on Gene Editing

Scientific self-regulation is only as effective as the field’s ability to
corral its strongest egos. In other words, it’s not.

by Pete Shanks <>

August 14, 2019
[image: Gene editing]

In mid-July, a bipartisan trio of U.S. Senators—Democrats Dianne Feinstein
of California and Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Republican Marco Rubio of
a resolution
calling for the creation of an international commission to set ethical
standards for gene-editing research.

How badly is this needed? Let’s just look at what has happened since.

On August 2, *Science *magazine published a deeply researched article
<> by staff writer Jon
Cohen about the “circle of trust” surrounding the work of Dr. He Jiankui,
the Chinese scientist who in 2018 edited the heritable genes of human
embryos. He then took the unprecedented step
<> of using these to
initiate and bring pregnancies to term.

Cohen found that at least eight senior American academics, including a
Nobel laureate, knew what Dr. He was trying to do. (In total, perhaps 60
people worldwide were aware.) Almost all of them told him not to do it.
None of them went public.

What Dr. He did is illegal
in more than 40 countries (though not in China). But while the scientific
community roundly condemned the experiment, Cohen quotes George Church, a
senior Harvard professor as saying, “He had an awful lot of company to be
called a ‘rogue.’ ”

While the scientific community roundly condemned the experiment, “He had an
awful lot of company to be called a ‘rogue.’ ”

Moreover, many of the scientists who criticized Dr. He have argued
in favor of scientific self-regulation. Rather than having the World Health
Organization, U.S. government and other political bodies take the lead,
they call on <>
“international academies” to “help foster (a) broad scientific consensus”
on gene-editing research.

Around the same time, it came to light
that Church, a firm advocate for the use of germline gene editing,
occasionally attended lunches with and received research funds from the
now-deceased convicted sex offender and alleged human trafficker Jeffrey
Epstein. To his credit, Church apologized
for his association with Epstein, stressing concern for the victims.

Church said his “poor awareness and judgment” was due to “a lot of nerd
tunnel vision.” He noted that scientists are as susceptible as anyone to
flattery and likely to convince themselves that they are putting tainted
money to good use.

That alone is a strong argument against “self-regulation,” but there is

Epstein was among a small group of billionaires, also including Peter Thiel
and Sergey Brin, who reportedly yearn
to live forever via biotechnological advancements. And a few biologists
really do want, in the near future, to let prospective parents select their
children’s attributes—not just height and hair color, but musical ability,
athleticism and intelligence.

Dr. He may have been thinking along these lines. He had contacts with
venture capitalists as early as August 2017, when his experiments were
still in the planning stage. According to Cohen, he even discussed opening
a clinic with John Zhang, an in vitro fertilization practitioner who
went to Mexico in 2016 to evade U.S. regulations and create a
“three-parent” baby. The clear implication is that the two were interested
not just in science but sales.

Scientific self-regulation is only as effective as the field's ability to
corral its strongest egos.

Make no mistake: this is techno-eugenics
<>. It involves power
and control and usually unacknowledged misogyny; it’s women, of course, who
bear the burden of birthing designer babies. The effort is narcissistic,
involves treating children as objects, and is almost certain to exacerbate
social inequality.

It’s also deeply unpopular: While opinion polls
show some support for editing embryos to avoid heritable diseases, the
numbers overwhelmingly indicate public opposition to editing for IQ.

Opinion polls also generally show
public confidence in scientists, tinged with some concern about what they
might do. These recent revelations about the “circle of trust” and
prevalence of “nerd tunnel vision” among the nation’s top scientists show
that these concerns are valid. But it takes nothing away from our
admiration for scientists to point out that they are human. Scientific
self-regulation is only as effective as the field’s ability to corral its
strongest egos.

In other words, it’s not.

*This column was produced for the **Progressive Media Project*
<>*, which is run by The Progressive
magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.*

[image: Pete Shanks] <> Pete
Shanks <>

Pete Shanks is a consultant with the Center for Genetics and Society and
author of “Human Genetic Engineering: A Guide for Activists, Skeptics, and
the Very Perplexed” (Nation Books).
Read more by Pete Shanks <>