‘If you can dream it, you can do it.’
Sound familiar? As inspiring as it sounds, Walt Disney might as well have added: ‘…provided that you get permission’. As scientists, we seek to understand the world and create applications and technologies to benefit us. We ask questions that are followed up by rigorous and persistent research. Research, however, is not free. The limited pool of public cash designated for science funding gives funding agencies an immense amount of influence over the questions we pursue in the laboratory, swaying an investigator’s research to questions guaranteed to yield results. This risks stifling creativity and has the potential to hinder scientific progress. When an area of research isn’t “fundable”, scientists are left with two choices – abandon ship or go private. While private funding may sound appealing, the practice can wade into ethical grey areas. There is a concern that with decreased government oversight, privately funded work may threaten scientific openness and escape the checks and balances of safety and quality control for new biomedical technologies.
The stark regulatory differences and standards for conducting research in different countries indicate that culture and religious beliefs affect scientific research policies. Fear is arguably one of the strongest drivers of policy in government regulation – be it fear of the impact of scientific discovery or political fear of constituent backlash. History is laden with examples of monumental scientific discovery being met with societal resistance and intimidation. When recombinant DNA technologies were first developed, people were concerned about genetically modified organisms being let loose and overtaking us. When in vitro fertilization was invented, religious concerns over the sanctity of life and increased harmful mutations arose, and cloning techniques exposed fear centered on genetically enhanced humans, ultimately leading to “designer babies”. As the Microsoft researcher, Danah Boyd, tastefully put it: “fear can sell almost as well as sex.” Sensationalizing controversial research energizes public opposition and disseminates pandemonium, leading to politicians imposing sometimes unnecessary regulations to ease voter anxieties. This is best exemplified by the enactment of US laws forbidding the use of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research shortly following the publication of the 1998 landmark study that isolated pluripotent stem cells derived from human embryos – a seminal piece of work that laid the foundation for modern regenerative medicine and tissue engineering. Dr. James Thompson’s group, who pioneered the study, conducted their stem cell work in a separate lab using private funds from Geron Corporation and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundations. Even Ian Wilmut, the creator of the government-funded “Dolly the sheep” project, was punished with the loss of federal funding due to public backlash, eventually ‘diminishing’ to private funding despite his landmark Nature paper. Although this form of federal punitive actions taken against controversial work may seem outdated, nearly two decades later, this episode of government stifling still remains.
In August of 2017, Dr. Shoukhrat Mitalipov’s group published that the genome editing tool, CRISPR, can efficiently repair a gene defect in human embryos. However, this work had to be funded by private donors and South Korean collaborators because of US restrictions on human genome editing. With our unprecedented level of control over the human genome with the use of CRISPR, we advance from reading genomes to writing them, which brings a new wave of ethical concern. The Human Genome Project-write (HGP-write) group even proposes to “synthesize a complete human genome within a cell line”, with a futuristic goal of making human cells resistant to viral infections, radiation, and cancer. Science is advancing at lightning speed – faster than we can reach consensuses about how to harness its remarkable power.
But what are our options? While many scientists will agree that excessive government restrictions or baseless instituted policies in response to unfounded public fears will stifle innovation, few opportunities exist to escape the yoke of these regulations. Enter Silicon Valley mindset: why don’t we just build a city free from government oversight to conduct privately funded research free from societal judgement? The idea comes across as a mix of Brave New World and Waterworld, and is a scientist’s paradise. Far from fantasy, this politically independent city is already taking form as “The Floating City Project of the Seasteading Institute”, an island of self-governing communities whose mission is to innovate in a low-regulatory environment. The key philosophy established by founder Patri Friedman, and PayPal founder Peter Thiel, is minimal governance. Currently, the institute has secured an agreement and cultivated a relationship with French Polynesia to co-create a sea zone for floating islands in the Tahitian lagoon with a projected building start by 2020. The institute is grounded by their eight great moral imperatives: “Enrich the poor. Feed the hungry. Clean the atmosphere. Restore the oceans. Live in balance with nature. Power civilization sustainably. Stop fighting. Cure the sick.” The last one, unsurprisingly, is already loaded with ethical concern.
Given the research carried out in these floating cities, or seasteaders, is funded by private sponsorship with no traditional regulations, scientists can theoretically work on anything. New human embryonic stem cell lines can be developed daily. Genetic engineering on human embryos can be developed for longer than a few days and even implanted. Moreover, the fast-paced culture of innovation fuelled by inter-island competition, would aid in faster discoveries and translation to a product. The Seasteaders, much like Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District, or Massachusetts Biomedical Initiatives, will be an incubator for progressive research. But in some cases, if the research conducted in a private setting has commercial value, then companies or investors may suppress the scientific research in order to promote their own economic interests or they may delay publication of their findings. Case in point, 23andME, a company designed to help people unravel their genetics and potentially spot any warning signs of disease, has a larger collection of genomic information than any company in the world. Regrettably, researchers have to seek their permission to access this private wealth of information; if granted, they do not even get the raw data. Because openness and transparency are crucial in science for collaboration and the validation of findings, this ‘secrecy’ represents a threat to scientific progress and understandably spurs public concern for unethical practices.
Though the scientific Utopian fantasy of an ‘island’ of unregulated research and unlimited funds may sound tantalizing to scientists, critics can rest in knowing that the full institution of those prefixed words is highly improbable. The most realistic outcome of this discourse is likely the surfacing of innovative ways to fund provocative research thus circumventing policies that are draped in public fears. It is important to note that according to United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone, which is a body not subject to the laws of any sovereign state, extends 370 km from shore. Where it’s currently situated, the Institute is not beyond the ‘safe-zone’ and so it will still have some form of government oversight from France. As private biomedical research continues to push against the boundaries of regulation, the struggle between ethics, safety and innovation in health will only likely intensify. So a question to our readers: if you had the opportunity to pursue any scientific question in an environment that fuels your drive and supports your ideas, would you become a Seasteader?