January 31, 2020, by Brigitte Nerlich
Moral Dilemmas in Science Journalism about Genetics Research: The case of gene drives
Guest post by Rebecca Hardesty, Ph.D.
Rebecca Hardesty is a postdoctoral scholar in science education and communication at UC San Diego in its Division of Biological Sciences and the Teaching + Learning Commons.
The New York Times Magazine rang in the New Year with a featured piece by Jennifer Kahn recounting the promises and perils of one of the newer advances in genetics research: the gene drive. As someone who has worked alongside biologists of various stripes for the past six years as a social scientist and modest historian of genetics, I found this article particularly striking. On the face of it, the journalist presented a compelling account of: a) the gap in understanding between the geneticists and general audiences; b) how gene drives could support the eradication of malaria; and c) the moral dilemmas associated with this kind of research. However, this story is more than just a well-researched and provocative piece – it is a paradigmatic example of what accepted science journalism is, and has been, for the last fifty years.
The standards this genre of journalism upholds support journalists writing informative and thought-provoking accounts of scientific advances. However, they also privilege reporting that abstracts biological work from the historical context which informs its significance. Even more significantly, this sort of journalism continues to uphold the view that scientists are always a bit removed from ordinary life and its accompanying moral concerns. This is not to take away from the article or the accuracy of its information on gene drives. However, I bring up this particular article as means of showing how the conventions of science journalism skew what goes on in actual scientific practice.
I encourage you to read the article itself, but I will relay the information it presents on gene drives as a means of first showing how the ethical issues the author identifies are understandable. Then I will show that they are not concerns specific to gene drives, but ones that have pervaded reporting on genetics research since the 1970s with little change.
About Gene Drives
Kahn begins with a surreal account of “Science Speed Dating,” an event that people in the entertainment industry attended in the summer of 2018 to learn about science so that its cinematic depictions were somewhat accurate. It was at this event a UC Irvine biologist, Anthony James, presented his work on mosquito-borne diseases, including malaria. In his research, James uses gene drives. Gene drives are a genetic engineering technology that changes the likelihood of a particular gene variant being transmitted throughout the population of a species. Gene drives are fairly flexible as a technique and one can use them add, delete, or modify genes. In the context of malaria research, in 2015, James and his laboratory genetically modified mosquitoes to resist the parasite that causes malaria.
However, as Kahn shows, gene drives are still in their infancy and have not been tested outside of laboratory settings. And this is for good reason. They have the potential to fundamentally disrupt the genetic evolution of a species. This is because, when a gene drive works properly, it affects not only the current generation of an organismic population, but all of its subsequent generations. The Hollywood framing of Kahn’s piece makes a lot of sense.
This technology immediately conjures up narratives of science-gone-wrong where a group of well-meaning scientists accidentally create mosquitoes that spread especially virulent forms of the diseases they carry. Or perhaps an entire ecosystem is affected in unforeseen and horrible ways because of a seemingly innocuous modification to one species. There are also the predictable storylines of this technology being weaponized or used to wipe out an entire species. This is not a new trope in science fiction. For example, the Mass Effect video game trilogy contains a species which was involuntarily genetically modified to limit the number of live births, and this gene was propagated to all future generations of the alien race.
Kahn continues by recounting the rocky road gene drives have had gaining trust and acceptance from activists and general audiences. Significantly, the author highlights the comments that came out of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in 2018 in which activists “compared gene drives to the atomic bomb” (Kahn, 2020). While the activists frame gene drives in a highly-charged way, it is not dissimilar to Kahn’s own framing of this genetic engineering technology as an immediate moral dilemma. Nor is this a new way of conceiving of the morality associated with genetics research. Part of my own research has focused on journalistic work on disease-oriented genetics research. To highlight the persistence of this approach to science journalism, I will take as a comparative example the April 1971 Time magazine special issue, “The New Genetics: Man into Superman.”
Disconnects between Scientists and the Media
I came across this Time magazine special issue when I was reviewing the transcripts of a meeting of the Salk Institute’s Council for Biology in Human Affairs that took place in Cold Spring Harbor on June 11 and 12, 1971. During this meeting, founding members of the Salk Institute, as well as external members of the Council, met to discuss several things. These included the recent developments in genetics research, how the public might respond to them, and how to inform the public about the significance of these developments. The conveners were particularly concerned with cloning, reimplantation, prenatal genetic diagnosis, and gene therapy.
The Council was split on whether the public was sufficiently educated on genetics research to make informed decisions about domains of life that the recent advances could, one day, affect. Some members were particularly concerned that the public’s lack of understanding would lead them to fear this branch of biological research and group it in with ongoing chemical warfare research that resulted in the gases being used in Vietnam, or even the kind of research in physics that lead to the atomic bomb in World War II. This issue of fear and public trust was set aside after the Council members referred to this Time magazine issue as evidence for why they did not need to engage in future efforts to educate general audiences. I tracked down this issue and was surprised to see that this was not the reassuring set of articles I assumed they were. In fact, they painted quite an alarming portrait of geneticists.
The cover of this issue shows human figures consumed by red DNA double helices against a dark background. The color palette is similar to radiation warning posters and signs used during the Cold War. The New York Times Magazine article has similarly disturbing imagery. In this case, it is an enormous black fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) with glowing red eyes that would not be out of place in a Giger-inspired horror film. While these were fruit flies that James, the biologist, modified to have fluorescent eyes, the magazine could have chosen to feature a less sinister fly with green or blue eyes. Still eye-catching, but less demonic.
Portrait of the Scientist as Outside Everyday Life
Textually, the Times magazine and the New York Times Magazine articles start with embedding their discussions of genetics research in fictional portrayals of moral dilemmas in science. The Times piece begins with a quote from Dr. Zhivago which, in the context of the article, brings together fears of communism, nuclear war, and science’s ability to change the nature of life,
“Reshaping life! People who can say that have never understood a thing about life—they have never felt its breath, its heartbeat—however much they have seen or done. They look on it as a lump of raw material that needs to be processed by them, to be ennobled by their touch. But life is never a material, a substance to be molded. If you want to know, life is the principle of self-renewal, it is constantly renewing and remaking and changing and transfiguring itself” (Pasternak, 1957).
While Kahn does not draw on the still-relevant quote from Dr. Zhivago, her early introduction of the “Science Speed Dating” as well as use of the voices of television producers, gives weight to the fictionalized version of science. Even though Hollywood isn’t a litmus test, as Kahn says, for how people outside of the sciences and the entertainment industry will evaluate gene drives, media representation is influential.
By using the cinematic version of genetics research as a contrast with biologists’ statements about their technical work, it does not make them more relatable. For the majority of people, fictional depictions of science are much more familiar than scientists own descriptions of what they do. And along with these depictions comes the sensationalized versions of the moral issues that are associated with technological advances.
Contributing to the depiction of biologists and geneticists as apart from the familiar and everyday, both articles show researchers operating outside of ordinary life. The Times magazine article uses quotes from researchers abstractly speculating about the moral implications of genetics research in their other work, which was not representative of academic sentiments at that time. One example is Robert Sinsheimer proclaiming that because of their increased understanding of genetics, scientists now understand the origin of life and have the ability to design humanity’s future (Time, 1971, p. 53). The article continues by reflecting on the potential genetic damage caused by the radiation from the atomic bombs used in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. It then quotes Theodosius Dobzhansky’s ethical dilemma,
“If we enable the weak and the deformed to live and to propagate their kind,” he says, “we face the prospect of a genetic twilight. But if we let them die or suffer when we can save or help them, we face the certainty of a moral twilight” (Time, 1971, p. 53).
This is a portrayal of scientists abstractly and coldly speculating about how they ought to dictate who lives and dies. The New York Times Magazine article is not sensationalistic; however, it shows scientists divorced from mundane concerns or responsibilities. In one photograph, Valentino James, a biologist at UC San Diego, stands imposingly in front of a refrigerated storage unit. In a vignette, researchers casually work all Christmas day debating the ethical and safety ramifications that their research may produce. While this goes by quickly, it does paint a portrait of scientists being removed from everyday concerns like holiday cooking, dealing with relatives, needing to take a vacation, childcare, or spending time with family.
In Kahn’s article, scientists are defined by their work, not the human feelings and drives that motivate us all to act as we do. Having spent years working alongside biologists, there is always a rich story to be told about how they care about involving their students in their research, their concerns about teaching (even if they are research faculty), why their work matters to them. Relatedly, it is usually compelling to hear why they chose to stay in academia as opposed to pursuing more lucrative (and possibly less stressful) careers in industry. There are also humanizing little stories to be told of how an experiment went wrong in a surprising way, how a lab decided on cleaning duties, or that meeting where the whole lab debated about where in their conference room they ought to hang a painting.
Not only would it be nice to hear these stories, science journalism needs them to revise the portrait of the scientist as an eccentric researcher who is unlike you or me.
Reconceiving Scientific Dilemmas
Finally, I want to take a step back and look at the context of these two articles. Half of the Time magazine issue was devoted to news and anxieties about the Vietnam war, the Middle East, continuing fallout from WWII, socialist uprisings, and disapproval of president Nixon. The New York Times Magazine issue had a similar tone. There was a focus on the US’s involvement in foreign conflict, changes in the Middle East’s political landscape, and there was also an article devoted to WWII and another focused on concerns about the Republican party. While much as changed in the world, much has remained the same. This includes the structure of both these articles and the way in which they are pitched. Both focus on the grand moral concerns concerning genetics research when there are more immediate issues such as:
- How can this work, which requires national and international collaboration and successful communication, occur?
- How can the significance of health-focused research be communicated to diverse and, potentially, justifiably skeptical audiences?
- How can we support the development of clear ethical guidelines that protect genetic information while still allowing it to be shared across research groups?
While the recent New York Times Magazine article is, in my opinion, fantastic and highlights the excellent work at the University of California, it is time to rethink science journalism’s preoccupation with the most abstract and extreme moral issues associated with scientific research. Not only are they not particularly urgent issues, focusing on them occludes the realities of genetics research. Two of which are: being able to do small modifications consistently in a controlled setting is different than doing large-scale modifications to a genetically diverse species in the wild – and biologists know this. Second, there needs to be a massive and coordinated effort between researchers, governments, and industry to pull off something like eradicating malaria by genetically modifying mosquitoes. This would be a possibly unprecedented act of international communication and coordination.
With all this in mind, I’d like to see more on the following challenges of gene drives: a) the difficulties communicating between researchers in different sub-specialties; b) the challenges of industry/governmental/academic collaborations; and c) issues of recruitment for diverse human genetic material.
They’re not as flashy, but these are pressing dilemmas.
Kahn, J. (2020, January 8). The Gene Drive Dilemma: We Can Alter Entire Species, but Should We? Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/08/magazine/gene-drive-mosquitoes.html
Man into Superman. (1971). Time, 97(16). Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=53806187&site=ehost-live
 See “’Gene drive’ mosquitoes engineered to fight malaria” in Nature news : https://www.nature.com/news/gene-drive-mosquitoes-engineered-to-fight-malaria-1.18858
Image: By Qimono on Pixabay.