The Ethics Of Creating Synthetic Life

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The idea of synthetic life worries many people, for both moral and ethical reasons. David Rejeski, director of the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, studies public perceptions on scientific advances. He talks to Michele Norris about the news that scientists have created living cells from synthetic DNA.


And joining me now to talk more about this development is David Rejeski. He's the director of the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. And he studies public perceptions on scientific advances. Welcome to the program.

Mr. DAVID REJESKI (Director, Science and Technology Innovation Program, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars): Glad to be here.

NORRIS: As we just heard in Joe Palca's piece, there are concerns among the public about advancements like this. What exactly worries people when we talk about this?

Mr. REJESKI: Well, I think one of the problems that we have is because a lot of the applications, for instance, to energy production or medicine are, I think, many, many years away, the science tends to be judged by the public more on the basis of its morality and risks than its practicality and its benefits.

So one of the things we've done, we've run experiments in focus groups where we've actually tried to get people to talk about the science based on, let's say, producing cheaper fuels. And a lot of them will acknowledge that there could be benefits. But they also raise, I think a number of interesting issues.

One of the issues they raise continually is whether the science could lead to the development of biological weapons. Another smaller group tends to talk a lot about environmental impacts. They worry about are we letting something into the society that 10 years from now or 20 years from now we're going to be sorry about? And then there's a small percentage who have a very, very strong reaction just on moral grounds. They think this idea of playing God really involves kind of crossing a boundary and don't they think we should go there.

NORRIS: You know, as for those moral issues, are there other aspects of that debate that you foresee on the horizon?

Mr. REJESKI: I think what we talk about a lot less is the ethical piece. This relates to trust in our institutions and their accountability. I think this discovery comes at a rather unfortunate time in terms of the relationship between corporations, the public and the government. It's right on the heel of the financial meltdown and the Gulf oil spill and I think those have done a lot to redefine public expectations about both ethics and risks.

And so there's a broader kind of narrative in which this discovery gets played out in. And I think quite often the scientists don't think outside the lab and realize that society is actually being impacted by lots of things that are happening in people's lives.

NORRIS: Mr. Rejeski, before we go on, I want to play some tape for you. We're going to hear President Lyndon Baines Johnson speaking in December of 1967. Let's take a quick listen.

(Soundbite of recording)

President LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON: What are you going to read about tomorrow morning? It's going to be one of the most important stories that you ever read or your daddy ever read or your grandpappy ever read. At this very moment, the biochemists at Stanford University are announcing a very spectacular breakthrough in human knowledge. They have for the first time finally succeeded in manufacturing a synthetic molecule.

NORRIS: Again, that was President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and he sounds pretty excited there by this advancement. Would you expect a similar reaction today?

Mr. REJESKI: I doubt it. I think that was 1967 and I think people's attitudes towards science were quite different. I think at that point in time, if I remember correctly, we were two years away from landing someone on the surface of the moon. And I think the public excitement about science was very different.

I think in the interim period, people have become more wary of claims from the scientific community. I think there's a number of constant narratives that get played out. And they get played out in popular culture. We these in our movies, we see these in video games. One of them is that science essentially slips over to the dark side and is used in nefarious ways. I think people now, today, are very different, and I think much more suspicious about science and the motivations of scientists.

NORRIS: That was David Rejeski. He's the director of the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Mr. Rejeski, thanks so much.

Mr. REJESKI: Thank you.

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