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Reflections on Conversation Series with Françoise Baylis and Ben Hurlbut

Author: Sanghamitra Das

For a junior scholar of the social studies of life sciences like myself, being a part of conversations on the ethical, social, political, and moral implications of the Clustered Regularly Interspersed Short Palindromic Repeats, or CRISPR, method of genomic editing has been a thought-provoking experience. In December 2018, my conversation with Professor Françoise Baylis on CRISPR began over a year ago at the 14th World Bioethics Conference in India. I was first put in touch with Baylis by my advisor, Professor Ben Hurlbut, who foresaw the overlaps in our research interests. When I introduced myself to Baylis one afternoon in the conference, we immediately embarked on a stimulating discussion. Our discussion was centered on women scientists’ representation in deliberations on CRISPR mediated gene editing. To this day, that friendly conversation in the familiar landscape of my home-country shapes the way I think about relationships of power in science and society.

Our recent panel discussion for the Conversation Series at Arizona State University’s Center for Biology and Society was also centered on CRISPR, within a different framework. Baylis, Hurlbut, and I discussed Baylis’ latest book, Altered Inheritance, that aimed at a general audience seeking to be part of the larger debate on CRISPR. At the heart of our discussion was the question of how to make sense of the scenarios that are likely to emerge in a world on the verge of being redesigned by CRISPR mediated gene editing. Hurlbut, whose expertise is on the ethical implications of the applications of CRISPR in the human genome, highlighted one salient societal concern – how to bridge the gap between powerful stakeholders’ vision for CRISPR research and society’s expectations for an ethical approach to CRISPR research.

What emerged from the conversation, which also included a number of questions and reflections from the audience, was a general understanding that diverse voices, including from the global South, need to be included in the deliberations on the future of CRISPR research. To me, this is a positive outcome and a step in the right direction. The Conversation Series held in our center each semester is meant to address the eagerness among scholars at various stages of their careers to engage in well-reasoned, yet passionate discussions about things we all care about. It is a way of situating our intellectual work within broader societal contexts. A world-renowned bioethicist discussing her book on the ethics of human germline editing with a mostly young audience promotes not only an intellectual discussion but also an intergenerational and interdisciplinary dialogue on the future of human beings as a species. These conversations ultimately stoke the fires of a collective creativity needed to answer some of the pressing problems for humanity today, including the future of the human nature in an increasingly technological world.