11 June 2020

Canberra researchers to unlock worldwide discussion on genome editing

| Michael Weaver
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Genome editing

A world-first discussion will be convened by researchers from the University of Canberra on the ethics of genome editing. Photo: File.

A research team from the University of Canberra will convene the first Global Citizens’ Assembly, placing citizens from all over the world at the centre of a conversation about the ethics of gene editing to redesign life and sculpt the evolution of living creatures.

Project leader Dr Simon Niemeyer is in charge of coordinating the global research and partner networks. He is also leading the design, implementation and assessment of the Global Citizens’ Assembly.

Dr Niemeyer said technology surrounding genome editing had moved so fast that people wanting to develop or test technologies looked for the least regulated place.

“This process needs to be global to prevent what is sometimes called ‘ethics dumping’. And just as human rights are a matter of global concern, so should a technology capable of affecting what it means to be human,” Dr Niemeyer said.

The Global Citizens’ Assembly of up to 100 or more participants will hear from experts and advocates about gene editing technologies and will deliberate on how public policy should regulate them.

Their recommendations will be fed into decision-making bodies at the national level for all the participating countries, as well as relevant global organisations. This will be done in parallel with the work of ethical, legal and scientific experts who will work through the findings of the global citizens for decisions about regulating genomic technologies.

Dr Simon Niemeyer

Dr Simon Niemeyer.

He said a multitude of ethical and legal questions and decisions need to be answered, including how to apply the technology, who gets to dictate the boundaries, and who decides the sort of future we want?

Examples of the technology include editing the genome of mosquitos to beat malaria, or manipulating crops to enhance their flavour and nutrients to provide the permanent cure to sickle-cell disease.

To help answer these questions, the University of Canberra’s Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance is convening the world’s first global discussion on genome editing.

The researchers, along with their industry partner Genepool Productions, have won more than $430,000 in Australian Research Council (ARC) funding to enact and film the Global Citizens’ Assembly.

Professor John Dryzek, Dr Niemeyer and Dr Nicole Curato are leading the project, which aims to bring the science of genomic technologies to a wider audience.

“We must bring in everyday citizens to help scientists, governments and regulators understand and act according to their aspirations and concerns regarding this technology, and at a global level,” said Dr Niemeyer.

“These are issues that cut right across vital public values. But because there is not a widespread familiarity among citizens with the issues and their implications specific to this technology, there is a need to create a forum where a representative sample can learn, deliberate and decide what the boundaries are, and what should be done to ensure that important, irreversible lines aren’t crossed.”

The grant includes an industry partner contribution from Genepool Productions, who will film the Global Citizens’ Assembly as the third of a three-part documentary series. The project team will analyse its impact on public understanding of fast-evolving science and technology.

“The ARC grant provides the impetus we need to make this happen, and I hope it will unlock more resources and commitments to the project,” Professor Dryzek said.

Dr Niemeyer said the resulting documentary will bring the science of genomic technologies to a wider audience through the lens of their fellow citizens while combining the drama of their thoughts and judgments around the issue and in their own non-technical language.

The project will also investigate the cross-cultural ability of citizens to discuss complex issues to provide a global public response to shared challenges. Dr Niemeyer explained the moral benefits of this type of global citizen deliberation.

More information, including a video about the project, is available on the Global Citizens’ Assembly on Genome Editing website.

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