Presentation - Colin O'Neil

Presentation - Colin O'Neil


Good afternoon, my name is Colin O’Neil and I am the Regulatory Policy Analyst for the Center for Food Safety and the International Center for Technology Assessment.  I am honored to join my colleagues on stage today in welcoming you to Tarrytown 2012.  Many of you have joined us from across the country and regions around the world.  As we ground our concerns this afternoon and make way for priorities, I urge us to discuss not only purpose and direction but a means to transition from concerns to campaigns.

No doubt it is important that we take time to reflect.  Reflect on our victories and our defeats, new challenges and the wealth of our history and in doing so give thanks to those who laid the groundwork that makes this conference possible. But we must also reflect on the path that we have chosen and begin to determine the best route forward.  Although the route forward is never direct and rarely illuminated, in the coming days I hope we can identify a clear path, seek new opportunities for collaboration and strengthen relationships with colleagues.

I join you today not as just a policy wonk and an activist but as member of an emerging generation, a cohort of activists, advocates, bourgeoning academics and young professionals.  Collectively, we seek to bridge the intergenerational divide between the frameworks laid by those before us and the rise of younger generations whose concerns, perceptions and relationships with science, technology and society differ from their parents’ in often unquantifiable ways.  In the coming days, I urge us to consider how our core values relate to the collective values of younger generations. 

At the Center our mantra has always been “stop the bleeding, fix the problem, shift the paradigm.”  While this approach is probably much like your own, it seems that all too often we must focus on the immediate.  Those of us in the NGO community are tasked on a daily basis with stopping the bleeding and as I look around the room I see well-worn faces that look more like surgeons than advocates, plugging leaks but forsaking the levee.

What this has done is segment our work into separated spaces, exchanging collaborative action for immediate reaction.  And whether it be food, drugs or human genetic technologies the levees that serve as our regulatory safeguards are under constant attack and the individual successes and failures of our actions no longer stand in isolation.

Last year’s Tarrytown meeting brought together a range of issues and after three days we were able to recognize that the goals and priorities of those in attendancewere similar and a nuanced bioethic could emerge and be embedded and integrated into our work.  Our growing movements could be faulted not for an ability to think critically but for a relative inability to act collectively.  We fail, more often than not, to consider the wide range of implications of our individual work and neglect the important connection between work product and political outcome.  Today, I challenge us to think about methods for action on college campuses, in public policy and for our deliberative bodies.

Not only do many genetic and emerging technologies have overlapping or similar social justice, ethical and economic impacts but their successes and failures send ripple effects throughout disciplines.  The backdoor approval of a genetically engineered crop in Southeast Asia may not sound relatable enough to draw a comparison to the questionable genetic testing of college students.  Yet the implications of such an approval would have great impacts on the awareness and future acceptedness of new genetic technologies. 

This impact is even more relevant when we examine parts of the world where educational outreach and political influence are difficult.  And in those regions of the world, the long reach of the corporate hand or intrusion by foreign interests often have no barrier.  In keeping with those concerns, we must broaden our efforts to include more members of the Global South and our messages must address the underrepresented communities all too often affected by genetic and emerging technologies. 

Therefore, as we establish the roots of collaboration, let us build new partnerships that take advantage of our collective academic, policy and legal strengths.  We must advocate for a truly interdisciplinary approach toward philosophical grounding and political and social activism.  The “techno-fix” mentality crosses disciplines, sectors and borders so, let us come together this year, next year and in the interim to speak out against injustice and provide a forum for those wishing to do more. 

I am extremely grateful for the generous persons and hosts that bring together this tremendous group of individuals; the monetary cost and burden of such an endeavor is certainly no secret.  Yet, as I meditated this weekend on the meeting to come, I couldn’t help but look forward to the day when our resources can be used to ground our concerns in full page ads in the New York Times and Google sidebars, challenging biotech companies with PSAs, and thirty foot billboards dotting highways from LA to Boston.

Our work on Capitol Hill would be that much easier if we didn’t have to spend half of our time contesting the myths that line the advertisements on our city buses, subway cars and newspapers. 

A worthy idea for the future, but absent a call to arms and decisive plan for action, such a scheme would fall on deaf ears and fail to produce long-term change.  Instead of merely escalating the media arms race, we are fortunate enough to convene with a brain trust of academics, intellectuals, campaigners, activists, entrepreneurs and networks of people around the world.  Together our collective actions, as we shift from concerns to campaigns, will add strength to our work, multiplying the energy we can put in as isolated individuals and organizations. 

With that in mind, we must continue to challenge the paradigm that we know too well, one that places emphasis on a need to engineer our environment and increasingly ourselves to fit the current industrial economic model.  This need not be a progressive issue.  When placed in the proper context, every challenge we face and every victory we claim should be done on behalf of social justice, mutual concern and I hope- collective action. 

And the emerging generation too can play a pivotal role.  Younger generations have always made a good habit of questioning authority but for the digital generation, the indoctrination of new technology begins in the womb.  New genetic technologies are impacting young people in novel ways.  Students are taught genetic engineering side-by-side with evolution and when confronted with a problem, a techno-fix is always waiting in the wings.  Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that we devise a robust and multifaceted plan for addressing how younger generations are confronted with genetic technologies, a plan to be devised and implemented by a diverse array of experience, backgrounds and skills.

As we solidify campaigns, let us focus on how we frame these issues in a larger context.  We are losing the media and messaging battle to corporate interests and false solutions.  Left unchecked, the reach of pharmaceutical companies or sympathetic agencies will spread past the pages of the Wall Street Journal and realized or not, their messages will shift from embedded to engrained.  This is why we must coordinate efforts and recognize that a holistic approach toward emerging technologies is all the more paramount.

While we gather here in Tarrytown, a mounting war on vital social services is being waged in Washington, D.C.  This war is being fought alongside those who aim to tear down regulatory barriers and remove the levees of protection in the face of those who need them the most.  In doing so, they seek to strengthen the rights of companies and individuals who would privatize, commercialize and profit off of the same social, environmental and health concerns that bring us here today.  

A clear line has been drawn in the sand by the Chamber of Commerce, Members of Congress and the foundations and companies who support them.  We cannot avoid the political realities we face. Rather than shouting from the sidelines or trying to negotiate inches in the sand, we must draw our own line and build our own levees to validate and uphold the values of social, ecological and economic justice and in doing so transition from isolation into empowerment, concerns into campaigns and awareness into action.