Getting the science right is a fundamental challenge when dealing with pioneering research and new technologies.
In a world where human knowledge is ever increasing, yet elusive because of the complexities of nature, of the interactions between humanity and nature and of the dynamics of those relationships over time, an exciting and promising world awaits us if we get the science right.
The shift from genetic determinism to modern genetics and the 'fluid genome' paradigm raises very basic questions and exposes the assumptions that have been used, and continue to be used, to rationalize and promote genetic engineering (GE), gene biotechnology and many emerging forms of nanotechnology.
The new genetics acknowledges that genes have a very complex ecology from which they receive layers of biological feedback over every scale of space-time. The new physics do not separate space and time. While the new genetics have yet to move strongly in that same direction and be mainstreamed, the discipline of "gene ecology" is gaining ground.
The new genetics is holistic genetics. This says that changes in ecological conditions can affect an organism, including its genes and genome. Conversely, a foreign gene introduced into an organism through GE may have influences that propagate outwards to affect the ecosystem. At the same time, a stable, balanced and healthy ecosystem is also essential for the health of genes and genomes.
There are also safety concerns over the GE process itself, which greatly enhances the scope and probability of horizontal gene transfer and recombination. This is the main way to the creation of viruses and bacteria that cause diseases. Destabilising genes and genomes through GE can thus be hazardous.
From genetically modified crops and pharmaceutical drugs to health genomics, the hazards are often not known. However, where something can cause irreversible harm, it is right and proper for society, and scientists in particular, to seek evidence that it is safe beyond reasonable doubt. Hence the precautionary principle or approach is crucial.
Unfortunately the quest to ensure safety is often faced with obstacles of denial, and even repression, of knowledge of potential and actual hazards. If we do not seek to ask the necessary questions, if science is not allowed to play its role with integrity and responsibility, then GE will lead to considerable ecological harm and human suffering. At the same time, precious resources needed to support all our societies, especially those in the developing and vulnerable parts of the world, will be wasted.
To ensure biosafety, we need to develop science policies that appreciate the centrality of nature, and connect science with society. Identifying gaps in knowledge, supporting research in holistic sciences and putting the precautionary principle into practice are among the key challenges before us.