On the Minds of Scientists

At the year's biggest conference of scientists, the talk turned to space etiquette, video game science, and the tricky question of who owns your DNA.

In an age when scientists slice, dice, and replicate the human genome for research purposes, is our DNA private property? As ever more countries—and even private companies—launch spacecraft into the universe, shouldn’t we have clear rules in place about appropriate space etiquette? And with more kids than ever mastering Guitar Hero instead of hitting the books, isn’t there something different we can try to get them excited about math and science? At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science this week, these were just a few of the topics explored by the scientists, engineers, educators, and policymakers in attendance. Here's a look at some of the conversations.

DNA Identifiability
As genomic research becomes a more essential aspect of modern medicine, the need for clear policies on the handling of DNA is becoming increasingly pressing. Large biobanks are filling up with samples of DNA from millions of people around the world. This human data is disseminated to scientists at research labs hoping to create new drugs, better understand diseases, and learn more about how the human body works. But because DNA contains unique information about the person it comes from, it’s impossible to remove someone's identity from his or her donated sample. As a result, protecting privacy is difficult, and at present, there are few systems or policies in place to safeguard personal information.

Scientists discussed the issue of communicating these limitations to the public and worried over the inability of current medical consent forms to cover the use and re-use of DNA samples. At present, said Dr. Barbara Koenig, an anthropologist at the Mayo clinic whose team is close to releasing policy recommendations for the governance of biobanks, there are inconsistent positions as to whether or not the study of DNA is even considered human research. Additionally, consent forms signed by patients allowing the use of their DNA in research no longer apply once the genetic information is entered into a biobank. Researchers who access it later are free to do with it as they please. Finally, existing policies don't apply at all to commercial DNA-gathering enterprises such as mail-in personal genome organizations like 23andme.

"Consent isn't going to work because there's too much unpredictable research that goes on later," she says. "This is a fast-moving dynamic science with 30-year-old regulations."

Regardless, the scientists agreed that donations should be encouraged and that, despite the impossibility of "de-identification," the importance of DNA research to the future of human health should be emphasized to the public. "It's a moral imperative to share information," said Sharon Terry, President of the Genetic Alliance.

Ethics of Space Exploration
The Outer Space Treaty, created in 1967 to establish a framework for international space law, includes a section on the protection of the planet Earth from space-born dangers. At the time the document was drafted, humans had not yet traveled to the moon. Today, man-made satellites have traveled farther into the universe then could then have been imagined. But little has changed in terms of global policy to protect the planets we visit or the humans back home from conflicts that might erupt over who claims ownership of the destinations we reach.

"How do you do an environmental impact statement on going to Mars?" asked Dr. Margaret Race, principal investigator for planetary protection and risk communication at the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe. "This is the first generation that has to gather data on our place in the universe. Exploration of far off environments is increasing."

Race has convened astronomers, biologists, ethicists, and theologians from around the world to puzzle out the issues facing our exploration of the cosmos. But planetary stewardship and protection, she says, needs a strong emphasis on public outreach. "What is the broad societal interest?" she asked. "This is not about little green men. This is bigger and more immediate then that."

Cassie Conley, Planetary Protection Officer at NASA, raised concerns about Google's Lunar X-Prize competition, which will award $30 million to the first privately funded team to send a robot to the moon and a bonus to a team that sends home pictures of the first moon landing site. "What happens if the Google guys drive over footprints on the moon?" she asked. Currently, she points out, there’s no policy to protect a historic site in space.

Science and Hollywood
It seems that even the frameworks we employ for transmitting scientific knowledge to future generations are due for an update. President Obama recently announced a nationwide campaign to boost Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education. Inspired by that initiative, the National Science Foundation and the University of Southern California used the conference to announce a new, some would say revolutionary, partnership.

Beginning in the fall, USC's Creative Studio will work with NSF-funded scientists around the country to help develop films and video games that explain essential science concepts in ways that the public can relate to. The idea is that if people better understand science they'll care more about how it impacts their lives.

"The public has come to see science and math education as painful. Most people are afraid of what they don't understand. We have a unique opportunity to allow people to access science with a language they do understand," said Elizabeth Daly, Dean of the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

Physicist Kip Thorne, best known in popular culture for his friendly feud with Stephen Hawking, echoed the need for updates and replacements to current visual science teaching aids. Thorne showed a series of short videos from the 1950s that he uses to teach students fluid dynamics. "There's nothing better today," he said.

The hope is that the partnership will ultimately take the mystery out of science, teaching the public that it can be entertaining, and encouraging American students to seek careers in STEM fields that have dropped off in popularity in the United States.