The University Record, September 25, 2000

Harold Varmus kicks off Life Sciences, Values and Society Program Oct. 11

By Sally Pobojewski
News and Information Services

The science of genetics was born 140 years ago when an Austrian monk named Gregor Mendel noticed that the color and shape of garden peas were inherited traits. Today, you can log into a computer in Maryland and read the genetic code of a human being.

Just 22 years ago, the first baby conceived in a test tube was born to a couple in England. Today, we can bypass conception completely and create cloned sheep and pigs from cells of an adult animal.

At a time when science and technology are advancing much faster than society’s ability to understand and cope with these new discoveries, the University has created the Life Sciences, Values and Society Program.

Its purpose is to examine the implications of issues that begin where science leaves off, says Richard Lempert, the Francis A. Allen Collegiate Professor of Law and professor of sociology, who directs the program.

“Today’s scientific revolution has important ramifications for society,” Lempert says. “We are facing profound ethical questions related to medicine, public health, the privacy of genetic data and the meaning of human life. Our goal is to make the U-M a national center for discussion and research to explore the impact of these issues before we, as a society, must make decisions on how to handle them.”

Created with a $500,000 grant from the Office of the President, the Life Sciences, Values and Society Program is part of the Life Sciences Initiative—a campus-wide effort to expand learning in rapidly advancing scientific fields, including genomics, chemical and structural biology, cognitive neuroscience and bioinformatics.

Harold Varmus, former director of the National Institutes of Health and president and CEO of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, will speak at 4 p.m. Oct. 11 in Rackham Auditorium to begin a series of free, public lectures and seminars on ethical issues related to the life sciences. His talk is titled “Regulation of Ethically Sensitive Science: An Illustrative Case.”

On Dec. 1–2, Robert A. Burt, visiting professor from Yale Law School, has organized a symposium titled “Dying in America.” The symposium will be held in Rackham Auditorium. For registration information, contact

Lempert says that in addition to the speaker series, the program will sponsor a series of faculty networking events, provide seed money grants for empirical research, and facilitate interaction among faculty and students from different disciplines.

“Our goal is to bring together the many individuals across the campus community who are interested in these issues and who have knowledge and expertise to contribute to the discussion,” says Amy R. Sheon, the program’s associate director.

Sheon adds that the Life Sciences, Values and Society Program will have its own page on the Life Sciences Initiative Web site, which will be ready for public access by mid-October. The site will include the latest information on upcoming seminars, lectures and classes. U-M faculty will be encouraged to post their areas of interest and contact information in a special section on the site.

“We see the Web site as crucial to facilitating communication between people who share a common interest in these issues, but don’t know each other,” Sheon says.

Later this year, Lempert also hopes to begin a series of life science lectures for the general public—including discussion related to societal and ethical issues. In addition, many of the program’s events will be designed to interest undergraduate students.

“Students should be engaged in these discussions, because they will be living through these changes in society,” Lempert says. “The undergraduate years are a perfect time to think through these important issues.”