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Biotechnology and Society in
the Twenty-first Century

Genoa (Italy), 22–23 March, 1999

International  Conference

Executive Summary

Introduction to the appraisal of results
Biotechnologies conditioning the quality of life
Productive and occupational development
Cultural revolution and public perception
Researchers’ moral responsibility

Preamble    Retour sommaire

The present Conference was held under the auspices of UNESCO, the Italian National Committee for Biosafety and Biotechnologies (CNBB) at the Presidency of the Italian Council of Ministers, the Province of Genoa and the region of Liguria. It was co-organized by the National Interuniversity Consortium for Cancer Research (CINRO), National Association for the Development of Advanced Biotechnologies (ANSBA) Advanced Biotechnology Center (CBA), UNESCO Venice Office, Ligurian Academy of Sciences and Humanities, European Initiative for Biotechnological Education (EIBE) and both the University and City of Genoa. Although the great majority of the 515 participants were Italians, participants also came from Belgium, Canada, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Russia, Switzerland, the UK and the USA.

The Conference took place within the framework of preparation for the World Conference on Science: a New Commitment and made express reference to the Genoa Declaration on Science and Society (Genoa, 1995).

Biotechnology, because of its horizontal nature, more than other scientific disciplines, demands a responsible evaluation of the possible consequences brought about by the modification of the genetic heritage of living organisms or parts of them. Consequently, proper forms of communication must be identified in order to guarantee objective, unbiased information.

The Conference will seek to contribute in a fundamental way to the diffusion of scientific research in the complex field of biotechnology, as well as to the championing of the opportunities and benefits, in terms of production and employment, that the field affords.

Introduction to the appraisal of results    Retour sommaire

The last few years have witnessed a surge in biological research that has unleashed a myriad of practical applications in many areas of activity (namely, health care, pharmaceutics, agriculture and the agro-food system, chemistry, environmental protection, information technologies), through both the delivery of innovative products and the adaptation of existing products into more competitive ones.

The growth of such permeating activity, however, which impacts on numerous aspects of social organization, has not been paralleled by efforts to convey correct and unbiased information to the general public, which is increasingly involved in choices of both a regulatory and a behavioural nature.

Knowledge of the development opportunities made possible by biotechnologies assumes growing importance, given the natural research - innovation transfer - product marketing cycle. This complex scenario necessarily conditions policy decisions that must be made, as well, emphasizing the need to assure a ‘biotechnology culture’.

Some of the issues raised by advanced biotechnologies, briefly outlined below, urge up-to-date and in-depth reflection. This Conference sought to create an occasion for the discussion and comparison, in order to analyse these timely and crucial issues.

Biotechnologies conditioning the quality of life:
medicine, agriculture, animal husbandry, energy and environment
   Retour sommaire

The political debate arising in recent years in developed countries focuses on the protection of our environmental heritage, on the exploitation of renewable, non-polluting energies, and on degradable materials dispersed in the environment.

Productive and occupational development    Retour sommaire

Biotechnologies must be viewed as an emerging industry, enabling the development of new products or the set-up of new methods for the production of already existing, but scarcely available, ones, such as human proteins or other complex molecules.

Biotechnologies thus constitute a viable instrument that can offer the productive system the results and outcomes of a more targeted and rational organization of those factors underlying the innovation process, namely, research activity, technology transfer, training, access to funding and capital, in order to stimulate the creation of new industrial sectors.

Confirmation of this potential is seen in the global sales of biotechnological products that, in the last few years, have experienced an overwhelming growth. Expectations, moreover, point to considerable increases for the years 2000-2005.

Directly linked to the productive and economic development potential of biotechnologies are its employment opportunities. Most of the professional figures operating in the field, be they technicians or researchers, will require targeted measures of continuing education and training, biotechnologies being a rapidly developing, science-based discipline. Managers, too, must be contemplated, as professional figures will be needed to link research breakthroughs with technological innovation and industrial development, in order to foster exploitation of research results, also through the detailed knowledge of markets and their demands.

Cultural revolution and public perception    Retour sommaire

Biotechnologies represent one of the technological revolutions of this century, introducing radical changes in the way many problems regarding human health, agricultural and zootechenic production and environmental protection are faced and dealt with. Biotechnologies have undoubtedly raised challenging environment-related, ethical and social issues that demand an open forum.

For this reason, the European Union has long supported the activities of the European Initiative for Biotechnological Education (EIBE), whose aim is to devise innovative teaching materials, including laboratory experiments, models of DNA, RNA and proteins, and cartoon strips illustrating biotechnology methodologies, to circulate to middle and high school students throughout Europe.

Moreover, EIBE seeks to improve the general public's perception of biotechnologies, in order to stimulate informed debate, to facilitate teachers' access to biotechnology training, information and resources, and to reflect on the environmental, economic, ethical and social problems posed by biotechnologies.

Culture and education are pivotal to progress, competitiveness and employment, and are vital for individual growth. However, these must not be limited to random periods of learning, but rather, be viewed as permanent features of the pathway of human knowledge, from scholastic education to professional training.

Overall, the public perception of biotechnologies is more favourable toward health care applications than toward agro-industrial uses.

An opinion poll on the public perception of biotechnologies showed that there is no correlation between knowledge and acceptance, and that risk is less significant than ethical acceptability.

Researchers’ moral responsibility    Retour sommaire

The professional ethic of researchers, which perhaps has never been written, regards above all academic activity. This kind of self-ruling imposes on researchers, for instance, the right/duty to promptly and objectively publish their results and to freely circulate not only ideas, but also the methods enabling others to reproduce their experiments. At the same time, moreover, this set of values discourages the excessive, often careless, if not outright negligent, use of inappropriate means to disseminate research findings, e.g., press releases or interviews.

By the same token, these releases, rather than acknowledged scientific conferences or seminars, are increasingly used in order to exploit to the utmost expected or preliminary results.

At times, for reasons of personal prestige or for access to research funding, scientists readily divulge findings of premature nature or inflated value to the mass media, inciting as a consequence alarm in the population.

At the same time, the scientist's refusal to comment or to take a stand on the meaning of information ensuing from research is counter-productive.

Another problem regards the need to find the right balance between the approach of the US, which reveals a dangerous confusion of roles between university professors and entrepreneurs, and that of Europe, which shows a penalizing distance between the academic community and industry.

Nevertheless, the most important and widely sensed issue regards the deliberate intervention on living beings through genetic engineering techniques: indeed, because this problem is the most pressing and most far-reaching in scope for humankind, the informed debate on how to handle it cannot be postponed.

Legislation    Retour sommaire

Biotechnology, through the genetic modification of living material, has provided humankind with the means to face problems that were previously considered insurmountable. In turn, however, as these novel possibilities have led to the need for a new ethical framework, they also compel specific legislative provisions. After years of debate and controversy, the problem of the legal protection of living materials was at last settled in the European Community in May, 1998, when the European Parliament issued the Directive on the legal protection of biotechnological inventions. This Directive does not modify the existing regulations (European Patent Convention - EPC), but only provides the specific ethical and legal limits with regard to the matter of the appropriateness of the living material. The content of the document recently approved in the EC - that has to be implemented by each Member State - provides the general principles of the patentability of living material, but expressly excludes the patentability of human beings, processes of modification or cloning of genetic germinal identity, commercial utilization of human embryos, processes of modification of the genetic identity of animals that may cause suffering that is purposeless for humankind, animal species or vegetable varieties.

Other European regulations existing since 1990 concern both the protection of workers exposed to biological agents (Directive 90/679/EC, implemented with Italian Legislative Decree n. 626/94), the use of genetically modified micro-organisms (GMMOs) (Directive 90/219/EC implemented with Italian Legislative Decree n 91/93) and the deliberate release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) (Directive 90/220/EC, implemented with Italian Legislative decree n. 92/93).

Biodiversity    Retour sommaire

The term biodiversity defines the variety of life-forms that surrounds us: mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects and other invertebrates, plants, fungi and micro-organisms like protists, bacteria and viruses. In 1992, a summit held in Rio de Janeiro drew more than 150 leaders from nations throughout the world. On that occasion, an International Convention on biodiversity was stipulated in the belief it is necessary to take measures to halt the loss of animal and plant species, as well as genetic resources.

Scientific and technological progress enables man to intervene on natural selection and on genetic characteristics. Admittedly, this potentially leads to faster evolutionary changes; on the other hand, biotechnology allows for the safeguarding of our natural heritage by means of genetic data banks, where animal and vegetable species and varieties can be preserved for the future.


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