Cambridge Science Festival - ORION Genome Editing Workshop

On Tuesday 13th March the Babraham Institute organised a discussion event “Genome Editing: How far should we go?” at the Espresso Library as part of the Cambridge Science Festival. The event started with a panel discussion, composed of Dr Peter Rugg-Gunn (Group Leader at Babraham Institute), Dr Kathy Liddell (Director of the Centre for Law, Medicine and Life Sciences at University of Cambridge), Nick Meade (Director of policy at Genetic Alliance UK) and Dr Alexander Maßmann (visiting fellow at the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge) and facilitated by James Brown (Education & Public Engagement Manager at the Biochemical Society).

Besides a panel discussion, the event contained of table discussions where the public discussed various questions around genome editing, supported by researcher from the Babraham Institute. Read Carolyn’s blog to learn more about the event.

The Babraham Institute was part of the ORION project, a 4 year project funded by the European Commission that aims to explore ways for institutes to open up the way they fund, organise and do research. As part of the project, Babraham Institute seeks new ways to further understand and implement engagement with the public on disruptive technologies, such as genome editing.

The advent of newer genome editing technologies that can make changes to the DNA sequence of an organism in a faster, more efficient, and more precise fashion has opened up a range of new possibilities, in research areas ranging from agriculture and food science, to basic bioscience and medicine. Ultimately, this technological progress has the potential to significantly improve human and animal health. Indeed Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, the pioneers behind CRISPR the latest genome editing technique, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020.

From 2018-2020, an international consortium of research organisations, on behalf of the ORION Open Science project supported by the Horizon 2020 Science with and for Society funding programme of the European Commission, led a public dialogue to explore public attitudes towards the use of genome editing technology in life sciences fundamental research. The dialogue sought to provide insights into how and when research performing and funding organisations should engage the public with emerging technologies, such as the genome editing tool CRISPR, to develop internal strategies that take into account public opinion.

The public dialogue process was split in two stages. The first stage included development of the dialogue specification and methodology by consortium partners followed by stakeholder review and consultation. The second stage involved 4 deliberative workshops that brought 30 members of the public together twice in four locations (Cambridge, Berlin, Stockholm and Prague) along with scientists and other representatives from partaking organisations. The organisations involved in supporting the dialogue were:

  • The Babraham Institute in Cambridge (UK): Publicly-funded organisation conducting biomedical research with a focus on understanding biological mechanisms underpinning health and wellbeing throughout the lifespan.
  • Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association in Berlin (Germany): Conducts basic biomedical research to understand the causes of diseases at the molecular level with the mission to translate discoveries as quickly as possible into practical applications.
  • The Central European Institute of Technology in Brno (Czech Republic): Superregional centre of scientific excellence combining life sciences, advanced materials and nanotechnologies.
  • Vetenskap & Allmänhet (Public & Science; VA) in Stockholm (Sweden): Non-profit association established in 2002 with the purpose of promoting dialogue and openness between researchers and the public.

This dialogue on genome editing in life sciences fundamental research highlighted a number of recurring messages such as; the need for communicating the importance of fundamental research and its role in the scientific process to the public and to carefully frame the motivations behind the use of the technology and its potential impact on society. It showed there is limited awareness of current and future uses of genome editing technology as well as little knowledge of guidelines and regulations governing its application among the general public in these four European countries.

Public participants in the workshops were particularly interested in ‘real-world’ applications of fundamental research. This argues for the importance of considering public views to make research and innovation more relevant, impactful and trusted, which can be possible when research organisations develop a more anticipative and reflective research governance frameworks and practices.

The findings of the dialogue were shared in an online event organised by the Babraham Institute in collaboration with Vetenskap & Allmänhet, which was attended by 75 delegates from research organisations across Europe. Some of the learnings from participants at the event were:

  • “We need to acknowledge the knowledge of the public participants and recognise how it complements the expertise of the researchers to come to conclusions on how new technology can be introduced in a way that benefits society as a whole.”
  • “There is an interest in the public in fundamental research. We as scientists should use that and share what we know, what we do, and what we don't know, yet. The public can be a valuable part of the thought process.”
  • “Public engagement is absolutely necessary but much more upstream (project design level) and people need to have scientific information 24-7 on national TV, similar to what happens with entertaining shows.”
  • “There is a need to communicate about the scientific process in terms of contribution to potential real-world impact.”

The Babraham Institute is currently reviewing its overall strategy as part of its strategic funding review and is looking to incorporate the dialogue’s findings in its future research and public engagement work. 

The commissioned service provider was Ipsos MORI and the project evaluator was the Centre for Research in Science and Mathematics Education. An independent evaluation was commissioned for the dialogue in the U.K. to Richard Watermeyer and Gene Rowe.