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Updated 9:00 AM October 13, 2004
 

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  Distinguished Lecture Oct. 20
Speaker: Public perception of genes has history behind it


Against a historical legacy of eugenics and other misguided experiments on human beings and their genes, biochemist Maxine Singer would like to share with the U-M community her sense of "why it is that the public is often uneasy with the discussion of our genes."
Singer (Photo courtesy Maxine Singer)

Singer, former chair of the Carnegie Institution and past director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, will give the fourth annual Distinguished Lecture for the Life Sciences, Values and Society Program, "The Public Perception of Genes," at 4 p.m. Oct. 20 in Rackham Auditorium.

Some of the public's apprehension about genetic research simply is the fear of the unknown, she said, as most members of the general public haven't been able to follow the rapid progress of the life sciences. "And that fear is laid on top of a very sorry story," Singer said by telephone from her office in Washington, D.C.

In her talk, Singer plans to review some of the darker moments of genetic research in the last century as a cautionary tale. "My hope is that by understanding that history, we might avoid repeating it."

The absolutist position taken by some sectors of society that certain types of science should never be attempted "is not very thoughtful," Singer said, "and to some extent, it's throwing the baby out with the bathwater."

A better option, she feels, is to pursue openness in science and have some public discussion of what she calls guidelines for reasonable research. "In the end, it seems to me, you don't want the Congress deciding what sorts of work people can do," she said, because legislation often is hard to undo, and because legislators may not be as informed on the subtleties as they should be.

As an example of what could be achieved, she points to her own involvement in the landmark 1975 Asilomar Meeting on Recombinant DNA. Participants in the conference were reacting to the newfound ability to mix genes from different species in a lab dish. Out of their discussion grew some self-imposed guidelines for the scientific community to follow until the scientific implications were better understood and the bioethicists and policymakers could catch up with the science.

Given the growth of private-sector biotech research and the money involved today, self-policing may be impossible, Singer acknowledges, but she still believes openness and guidelines are the best ways to advance science while protecting society.

Singer received her doctorate in biochemistry from Yale University in 1957 and is a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences. She has received numerous awards, including the Distinguished Presidential Rank Award, the National Medal of Science and many honorary degrees. She is chairman of the Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy of the National Academy of Sciences and chair of the Board of Directors of the Whitehead Institute.

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