Remarks by Debra Greenfield

Remarks by Debra Greenfield

Welcoming Plenary

Good afternoon. I'm delighted and flattered to be addressing all of you, and I thank CGS for bringing together this amazing group… this welcoming session proposes that we consider two fundamental questions, what brought us here today and what we want to accomplish. This suggests that we are already a pre-existent collective body brought together in common cause…but if there are a hundred participants, there is probably an equal number of motivations that brought us here; and equally as many aspirations for the coming days. I can't begin to delineate the breadth, depth and scope of these pursuits, and I won't attempt to voice them for you. Instead, it is exactly my inability to describe what I could define as truly common purposes or goals that I would like to comment upon.

Because I believe that before we begin our substantive deliberations, before we agree to urge Congress to rewrite the Patent Act, or we balance the benefits and harms of synthetic biology; even before we articulate fundamental principles concerning human rights and justice, I believe we first need to understand who we are, and what we want to be as a communal entity.

Not only is there a wide spectrum of motivations and responses regarding the issues in question, we also come from a broad range of disciplines: public interest advocates, attorneys, scholars, policy-makers, scientists, writers, artists, and students…many of which overlap: scholars advocate and scientists make policy; attorneys make films and students are commentators. The diversity of our endeavors produces a myriad of histories, backgrounds, styles, agendas and unfortunately politics, and a collective "we" seems difficult to achieve.

But it's also apparent that the promise of cohesiveness really does exist. We all work at the same important job, for in our own unique ways everyone here educates. And at our core, we share a unique common bond, a commitment to think deeply, rigorously and critically about past, present and future biotechnologies. This shared commitment unifies us; it is rarified and oftentimes isolates us from the world, it doesn't make for easy dinner time conversation or go especially well in social settings. We all are cognizant that our interests have not yet entered the zeitgeist and sometimes feel less compelling than issues of war, poverty, and the environment. Yet amongst ourselves we appreciate that the implications of human biotechnologies are both connected to those pressing concerns and equally as profound; we all share the same desire for a wider public acknowledgement of their meaning and significance. Despite our problematic diversity, perhaps what we want to be is a group whose collective work is understood; to become so we must be unified to the extent that we can have a representative voice and ultimately a recognizable public face.

The formulation of that voice is a first priority, for without its creation we will be unable to reach the necessary partners, who can help us implement, interpret and deliver our common themes and goals. Considering who we are today, it's informative to consider who's absent, people we need reach and with whom we need to develop relationships. There are no elected officials or politicians. There are no representatives from governmental agencies in the field. There are only a few scientists here willing to engage in self-examination. There are no recognizable media commentators or Huffington post bloggers, or well known science writers or journalists documenting our endeavors. None of the mainstream and media go-to bioethicists are here and not one Hollywood celebrity has graced us with their presence. With our eagerness to be heard we might wish they were here but perhaps it is a good thing they're not, for as yet we have not clearly defined our language or refined our proposals. Until we do so we will continue to remain rarified and isolated, having the same conferences and discussions, no matter how beneficial and illuminating, only amongst ourselves. We must rise to the challenge of reaching the next level of participants.

The obvious question remains, how do find this voice by Thursday afternoon and thankfully my time, is almost up. But perhaps we could begin by acknowledging the varying styles, disparate agendas, and political tensions as the basis for our historic stalemate. Having done so, let's be honest about our prejudices and stylistic preferences: if academics are irritated by emotion, passion, and simplification; if abstractions, precision, and complexity are maddening to advocates, let's express it, out loud and with good humor. Let's agree to own our individual agendas, profess them, explain them, and then let's agree to let them go, at least to the extent that they prohibit our minds from being open and limit our willingness to compromise. And if we recognize any political forces at play can we at least admit to them, with an open discussion of their being part of the challenge of successful communication and action. It is only then that we can broaden our perspectives, put individual interests and issues aside and articulate common themes and goals.

These suggested operating principles should be easy. The hard work will be, developing, organizing, and expressing the innate and inter-connected intellectual principles that bind us together, finding novel and imaginative methods, stories and analogies to create a new and compelling language; figuring out the ways and means to reach the shared understandings which can then be articulated beyond the confines of university grounds or conference room gatherings. I believe at heart we already know what brought us here and what we'd like to accomplish…let's move on to the next step on our program which will help our aspirations become a reality….let's begin to Ground Our Concerns…