Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Science & Technology Are Not Enough

Scientific and technological advances of the 21st century hold the promise of making the world a better and more equitable place to live. Scientists are now on the leading edge of finding cures for currently incurable diseases, developing crops that feed more people, and discovering cleaner more efficient energy sources.

A recent article in The Guardian entitled “Genomics revolution: UK could miss the boat, scientist warn” discusses one such future promise of the so-called ‘genomics revolution’ in the form of whole genome sequencing.

The article suggests that the ability to fully map a person’s DNA code is fast becoming as cost effective as current genetic testing. We could soon see the day where sequencing the genome of every new born is as common as the heel prick test, heralding a future where knowledge of our genetic predisposition to disease improves diagnosis and treatment.

Yet, the article implies there is a presumed ‘arms race’ in the science – one where the science is being done and all it needs is a commercial mechanism to make it readily available to the public – in which the UK in particular, is falling behind relative to competitors. The problem, it seems in this instance, is the lagging support by the NHS to provide such tests to patients, and an insufficient clinical informatics structure to interpret the genomic data efficiently.

The underlying premise of the article appears to be that the promise of the social benefit motivates the demand that something be done to improve the UK science base. This, however, is just a promissory note drawn from other contexts. None of the translational aspects of putting science into use, or the social acceptability of potential technologies, are considered.

There is no doubt that life science innovation depends on these new ideas and discoveries, but living up to their promises requires more than just science and technology alone. The uptake and use of commercialised technology cannot be assumed to be a natural outcome of R&D investments. Social factors like public perception, regulation and intellectual property can make or break the uptake of new products and services.

Without these and other elements being properly thought through, the promissory note will remain unfulfilled. Unpacking the value proposition of whole genome sequencing requires us to explore in depth the returns to society from investing in the science. Without this analysis we may be left with science for science’s sake.

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