Hello and welcome to my blog! My name is Caroline and I am a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. My research project focuses on Striga - a genus of parasitic plants that devastates harvests by infecting food crops. I am exploring the defence reactions that can make host plants more resistant against Striga. Due to my ongoing battles with anorexia, I haven't made as much progress as I would have liked but I am determined to finish the course.

This blog charts the ups and downs of life in the lab, plus my dreams to become a science communicator and forays into public engagement and science policy....all while trying to keep my mental and physical health intact. Along the way, I'll also be sharing new plant science stories, and profiles of some of the researchers who inspire me on this journey. So whether you have a fascination for plants, are curious about what science research involves, or just wonder what exactly I do all day, read on - I hope you find it entertaining!

Wednesday 24 July 2013

IUPS 2013: A Discussion on Science Ethics

Science ethics...perhaps a topic one would rather avoid at a conference exploring the dizzying frontiers of discovery...with too many sessions on outstanding science to choose from, is their time to discuss the more vague and contentious specs of research? A space wa shade for this however, in a session entitled 'Ethical Issues in physiology - synthetic biology: Scientific progress or ethical dilemma?'. A succinct overview was provided of the different ways in which science can be 'owned' or managed but there there was little space for discussion. So I would like to bring that debate here! I'm always intrigued by the question, 'Can you ( or should you) patent a naturally occurring gene?'. You didn't make it but without dedicated, costly study (not to mention specialist equipment), it would not have been brought to public attention. Is the scenario changed if one can manufacture the gene synthetically? This is a debate that will only grow in importance as synthetic biology pervades even more areas of society. So...how should science be 'owned'?

What are the options?

1. State sovereign rights : states and national governments control access through national legislation. Access and benefit sharing agreements are arranged with parties hoping to use the material, such as research institutes.

2. Free access: where the resources are beyond national jurisdiction and can be accessed or used by anyone, e.g. Marine genetic resources.

3. Common Heritage of Mankind: resources cannot be owned by anyone but are effectively managed by everyone. States can only adopt an 'overseer' role. Scientific research is conducted for the benefit of everybody, rather than private gain, and the economic benefits are shared internationally, with the results freely and publically exchanged. 

4. Intellectual Property Rights: the classic practice of protecting property with patents. 

5. Mixed systems: combinations of the above. An example is the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources, which concerns over 30 crops pertinent to food security. Nations put forward a list of their genetic resources but still exercise state sovereign rights. The treaty aims to facilitate rapid access- benefit sharing agreements between countries to allow genetic material to be disseminated among research groups. A strong feature of the treaty is the protection of farmer's rights and their contribution to protecting germ plasm. Another case is the International Pandemic Influenza Prepardness Framework, set up in 2011 to allow the rapid exchange of viral material between member states to accelerate vaccine development. Both these treaties seek to avoid the 'Patent Thickets' that can delay research; in the case of food security and vaccine production, such beureaucratic encumbrances can cost lives.

So which method is the best to take forward into the future? Should different areas of science adopt different approaches? What are your thoughts? Please leave your comments below or your experiences of systems that you believe in.

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