29 March, 2018
As part of the Cambridge Science Festival (12 – 25 March), the Babraham Institute hosted an event to discuss the risks and opportunities of genome editing with the public. Having only joined the Babraham Institute six months ago, my involvement as a table discussion facilitator at the event was my first foray into public engagement. I got involved as I think that it is crucial that researchers share up to date and accurate information with the public about advancing research areas, so that the public can tell us about their opinions and ask questions about the research they are supporting. The genome editing debate is, in my view, the most important debate in biological research today, and is especially relevant to me as I plan on using CRISPR-Cas9 technology, one of the methods to edit a genome, in my research.
I was impressed with the turnout – the venue was packed! Clearly the public were very interested to find out more about the current landscape of genome editing research. The event started with an engaging panel discussion that covered a broad range of issues. The panel members had diverse backgrounds and included 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) – therefore many perspectives were covered. The panel discussion was facilitated by James Brown (Education & Public Engagement Manager at the Biochemical Society).
Following the panel debate, the public was given the opportunity to share their opinions during table discussions. At my table, there was lively and animated discussion and a number of interesting points were raised. For example, we discussed whether genome editing should be used as a preventative therapy in healthy individuals to reduce future risk of disease. Overall, those at my table were open to the use of genome editing to improve human health, but were cautious and wanted to ensure that robust scientific practice had been followed so that there would be confidence in the long-term success of such therapies.
At the drinks reception that followed the event, a member of the public asked me whether I thought public opinion should inform policy-making decisions on genome editing. She was hesitant whether this should be the case and could not see how it could be practicably implemented. In my opinion, public opinion should be considered, and my experience at the event only strengthens this assertion. Discussion with public groups undoubtedly enriches debate. This technology has great potential, such that all of us are likely stakeholders at some point and as such should be consulted.
The Babraham Institute is 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 ORION project, Babraham Institute seeks new ways to further understand and implement engagement with the public on disruptive technologies, such as genome editing.
29 March 2018