UC Davis CRISPR Meeting: Big Picture from Ben Hurlbut

The CRISPR meeting has started off wonderfully with a talk by Ben Hurlbut. His talk was entitled, “The Demands of CRISPR’s World: Imagination, Deliberation and Governance”. Since I took notes and listened this post is somewhat freeform.

I liked how Ben asked a lot of questions.

What is “CRISPR’s world” as Science Magazine called it?

How do we want to use the capability of CRISPR?

Ben made a comparison to nuclear physics and the development and use of atomic bombs. He quoted throughout his talk the words of Robert Oppenheimer as well with great effect.

Oppenheimer quote

Ben talked about David Baltimore’s words from the National Academy of Sciences D.C. Summit of Human Gene Editing. He quoted Baltimore that “we are initiating the process of taking responsibility”, but who is this “we” that makes the decisions and takes the responsibilities?

Who gets to imagine the future?

He said that predicting risk is one way to imagine the future.

Who steers and governs this situation is not an easy question as we consider moral deliberation on the use of CRISPR in humans. Are scientific experts the best “we” to direct the path forward? If they in a sense work together with bioethicists to assess how we guide the process and how well will that work?

By comparison Ben also discussed the original 1975 Asilomar meeting on recombinant DNA technology including Baltimore having a leading role there too. They were making public policy, but what was the public role of Asilomar? The scientists were in a sense self-regulating and creating public policy, but it seems like the public was disconnected from the meeting. More generally, science acts and society reacts.

We need more inclusive imagination and deliberation.

He concluded by saying, “It’s our world, not CRISPR’s”, which I thought was a great point.

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