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Event Review: Genomes and Societies - Global Challenges around Life Sciences

20 May 2013
By Chris Berry
Press and communications officer, ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum
Appeared in BioNews 705

Genomes and Societies: Global Challenges around Life Sciences

Organised by the Economic and Social Research Council's Genomics Network

One Great George Street, Westminster, London SW1P 3AA, UK

30 April-1 May 2013

'Genomes and Societies: Global Challenges around Life Sciences', organised by the Economic and Social Research Council's Genomics Network, 30 April-1 May 2013

Earlier this month, over 180 delegates and speakers gathered in London for the final annual conference of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)'s Genomics Network (EGN). After a decade of support from the ESRC, the EGN will officially draw to a close at the end of May.

The 2013 EGN conference was no maudlin affair however. Rather, it presented an opportunity to examine the substantial impact the Network has had over the last 10 years in researching the socio-economic impacts of developments in the life sciences, and engaging key stakeholders with the outputs from this work. It also provided a chance to look at the important areas within genomics and biosciences that might come to prominence in the future, and how the centres forming the EGN will continue to interact with these.

Proceedings commenced with a very engaging opening 'provocation' by Professor Roger Pielke, Junior, on the role of scientific advisors – in both the USA and Europe – in setting the scientific policy-making agenda. This appropriately set the scene for the following plenary session on 'What's special about scientific advice, governance and policy-making in the life sciences?' which featured insightful contributions drawn from a range of policy-making backgrounds.

The direct relevance of the work of the Genomics Network to the policy arena was also a key theme in two other of the event's plenary sessions. This included a session on how the EGN has influenced policy, debate and understanding in relation to the life sciences, which featured contributions from social scientists from across the Network's four centres, together with representatives from policy-orientated stakeholder groups who have been active participants in EGN research.

The work of the Network in engaging with emerging policy issues was exemplified in the plenary on the increasingly influential policy driver that is 'responsible innovation'. This session included perspectives on the potential impact responsible innovation might have upon the life sciences from contributors drawn from the European Commission, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, and representatives from the EGN, as well as the chair of responsible innovation at the University of Exeter.

A number of parallel sessions provided the Cesagen, Egenis and Innogen centres with the opportunity to explore some of the key areas of their respective research in more detail. Topics up for discussion were diverse, spanning the democratisation of genetic sequencing, global health and development, future food, epigenetics, and the governance of new technologies.

Vital though such social science research has been to the success of the EGN, this represents only one side of its story. The use of novel engagement methods to stimulate debate around life science has been equally important, and this was explored in more detail in a quick-fire session featuring writers, artists and filmmakers who had each undertaken residencies with the Genomics Network.

The two sessions that concluded the conference looked at part of the EGN's legacy, and what the future might hold beyond the end of the Network. One plenary examined the 'living legacy' of postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers who have taken their skills and insights to other institutions, with the other providing a showcase for centre directors to set out the future research and engagement plans for their respective institutions. Whilst the end of the Network will mean that there is no longer a role for the Genomics Forum, the three research-based centres within the former EGN will continue to function, albeit with some revision in form and focus.

In concluding a very informative and inspiring two days, the ESRC Chief Executive, Professor Paul Boyle, observed that ESRC had made a very wise choice in agreeing to fund the EGN a decade ago. The impact of the EGN will continue for years to come, and it is therefore unsurprising that ESRC remains very supportive of the cutting-edge, social science research EGN centres have undertaken, and will continue to carry out.

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