It’s no easy task these days for people to pick the scientists they should follow. According to a recent poll by NORC at the University of Chicago, only 39 percent of Americans have a "great deal" of confidence in the scientific community. The finding is similar to Pew research last year showing that 29 percent of Americans have this level of confidence in medical scientists.
Not helping: All the money in science. Just 20 percent of Pew’s survey respondents think scientists are transparent about conflicts of interest with industry. While this issue is common to many fields, the recent gold rush to foot the bill for research on therapies for healthy aging may be contributing to the overall sense of distrust. “There’s a feeling that at some point, the FDA may actually designate aging as a disease,” said Pam Maher, a neuroscientist who studies aging at Salk Institute. “That may be another impetus for a lot of these companies to start up.”
But partnering with companies is an important incentive for researchers across biomedical fields. Many scientists – with and without financial ties and incentives – are honest, transparent and doing important, inspiring work. I asked more than a dozen bioethicists and researchers in aging how to spot the scientists who are searching for the truth more than money, ego or fame.
Avoid Scientists Who Sound Overly Confident in messaging to the public. Some multi-talented scientists are adept at publishing in both top journals and media outlets. They’re great at dropping science without the confusing jargon, in ways the public can enjoy and learn from.
But do they talk in simple soundbites, painting scientific debates in pastels or black and white when colleagues use shades of gray? Maybe they crave your attention more than knowledge seeking. “When scientists speak in a very unnuanced way, that can be irresponsible,” said Josephine Johnston, a bioethicist at the Hastings Center.
Scientists should avoid exaggerations like “without a doubt” and even “we know” – unless they absolutely do. “I feel like there’s more and more hyperbole and attention seeking…[In aging research,] the loudest voices in the room are the fringe people,” said the biogenerontologist Matt Kaeberlein.
Separate Hype from Passion. Scientists should be, need to be passionate, Johnston explained. In the realm of aging, for example, Leonard Guarente, an MIT biologist and pioneer in the field of aging, told me about his belief that longer lifespans would make for a better world.
Instead of expecting scientists to be lab-dwelling robots, we should welcome their passion. It fuels scientific dedication and creativity. Fields like aging, AI and gene editing inspire the imaginations of the public and scientists alike. That’s not a bad thing.
But it does lay fertile ground for overstatements, such as claims by some that the first 1,000-year-old has already been born. If it sounds like sci-fi, it’s probably sci-fi.
Watch Out for Cult Behavior, some experts told me. Follow scientists who mix it up and engage in debates, said NYU bioethicist Arthur Caplan, not those who hang out only with researchers in the same ideological camp.
Look for whether they’re open to working with colleagues who don’t share their views. Through collaboration, they can resolve conflicting study results and data, said Danica Chen, a biologist at UC Berkeley. We should trust science as long as it doesn’t trust itself.
Messiness is Good. You want to find and follow scientists who’ve published research over the years that does not tell a clean story. “Our goal is to disprove our models,” Kaeberlein said. Scientific findings and views should zig and zag as their careers – and science – progress.
Follow scientists who write and talk publicly about new evidence that’s convinced them to reevaluate their own positions. Who embrace the inherent messiness of science – that’s the hallmark of an honest researcher.
The flipside is a very linear publishing history. Some scientists have a pet theory they’ve managed to support with more and more evidence over time, like a bricklayer gradually, flawlessly building the prettiest house in the neighborhood. Too pretty.
There’s a dark side to this charming simplicity: scientists sometimes try and succeed at engineering the very findings they’re hoping to get, said Charles Brenner, a biochemist at City of Hope National Medical Center.
These scientists “try to prove their model and ignore data that doesn’t fit their model because everybody likes a clean story,” Kaeberlein said. “People want to become famous,” said Samuel Klein, a biologist at Washington University. “So there’s always that bias to try to get positive results.”
Don’t Overvalue Credentials. Just because a scientist works at a top university doesn’t mean they’re completely trustworthy. “The institution means almost nothing,” Kaeberlein said.
Same goes for publishing in top journals, Kaeberlein added. “There’s an incentive structure that favors poor quality science and irreproducible results in high profile journals.”
Traditional proxies for credibility aren’t quite as reliable these days. Shortcuts don’t cut it anymore; you’ve got to scrutinize the actual research the scientist is producing. “You have to look at the literature and try to interpret it for yourself,” said Rafael de Cabo, a scientist at the National Institute on Aging, run by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Or find journalists you trust to distill this information for you, Klein suggested.
Consider Company Ties. Companies can help scientists bring their research to the public more directly and efficiently than the slower grind of academia, where “the opportunities and challenges weren’t big enough for me,” said Kaeberlein, who left the University of Washington earlier this year.
"It’s generally not universities that can take technology through what we call the valley of death,” Brenner said. “There are rewards associated with taking risks.”
Many scientists are upfront about their financial conflicts of interest – sometimes out of necessity. “At a place like Duke, our conflicts of interest are very closely managed, said Matthew Hirschey, who researchers metabolism at Duke’s Molecular Physiology Institute. “We have to be incredibly explicit about our partnerships.”
But the willingness to disclose conflicts doesn’t necessarily mean the scientist is any less biased. Those conflicts can still affect their views and outcomes of their research, said Johnston, the Hastings bioethicist.
“The proof is in the pudding, and it’s got to be done by people who are not vested in making money off the results,” Klein said. Worth noting: even if scientists eschew companies, they’re almost always financially motivated to get grants for their research.
Bottom line: lots of scientists work for and with companies, and many are highly trustworthy leaders in their fields. But if a scientist is in thick with companies and checks some of the other boxes on this list, their views and research may be compromised.
In this Q&A, leading technology and healthcare futurist Jamie Metzl discusses a range of topics and trend lines that will unfold over the next several decades: whether a version of Moore's Law applies to genetic technologies, the ethics of genetic engineering, the dangers of gene hacking, the end of sex, and much more.
Metzl is a member of the WHO expert advisory committee on human genome editing and the bestselling author of Hacking Darwin.
The conversation was lightly edited by Leaps.org for style and length.
In Hacking Darwin, you describe how we may modify the human body with CRISPR technologies, initially to obtain unsurpassed sports performance and then to enhance other human characteristics. What would such power over human biology mean for the future of our civilization?
After nearly four billion years of evolution, our one species suddenly has the increasing ability to read, write, and hack the code of life. This will have massive implications across the board, including in human health and reproduction, plant and animal agriculture, energy and advanced materials, and data storage and computing, just to name a few. My book Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity primarly explored how we are currently deploying and will increasingly use our capabilities to transform human life in novel ways. My next book, The Great Biohack: Recasting Life in an Age of Revolutionary Technology, coming out in May 2024, will examine the broader implications for all of life on Earth.
We humans will, over time, use these technologies on ourselves to solve problems and eventually to enhance our capabilities. We need to be extremely conservative, cautious, and careful in doing so, but doing so will almost certainly be part of our future as a species.
In electronics, Moore's law is an established theory that computing power doubles every 18 months. Is there any parallel to be drawn with genetic technologies?
The increase in speed and decrease in costs of genome sequencing have progressed far faster than Moore’s law. It took thirteen years and cost about a billion dollars to sequence the first human genome. Today it takes just a few hours and can cost as little as a hundred dollars to do a far better job. In 2012, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuel Charpentier published the basic science paper outlining the CRISPR-cas9 genome editing tool that would eventually win them the Nobel prize. Only six years later, the first CRISPR babies were born in China. If it feels like technology is moving ever-faster, that’s because it is.
Let's turn to the topic of aging. Do you think that the field of genetics will advance fast enough to eventually increase maximal lifespan for a child born this year? How about for a person who is currently age 50?
The science of aging is definitely real, but that doesn’t mean we will live forever. Aging is a biological process subject to human manipulation. Decades of animal research shows that. This does not mean we will live forever, but it does me we will be able to do more to expand our healthspans, the period of our lives where we are able to live most vigorously.
The first thing we need to do is make sure everyone on earth has access to the resources necessary to live up to their potential. I live in New York City, and I can take a ten minute subway ride to a neighborhood where the average lifespan is over a decade shorter than in mine. This is true within societies and between countries as well. Secondly, we all can live more like people in the Blue Zones, parts of the world where people live longer, on average, than the rest of us. They get regular exercise, eat healthy foods, have strong social connections, etc. Finally, we will all benefit, over time, from more scientific interventions to extend our healthspan. This may include small molecule drugs like metformin, rapamycin, and NAD+ boosters, blood serum infusions, and many other things.
Science fiction has depicted a future where we will never get sick again, stay young longer or become immortal. Assuming that any of this is remotely possible, should we be afraid of such changes, even if they seem positive in some regards, because we can’t understand the full implications at this point?
Not all of these promises will be realized in full, but we will use these technologies to help us live healthier, longer lives. We will never become immortal becasue nothing lasts forever. We will always get sick, even if the balance of diseases we face shifts over time, as it has always done. It is healthy, and absolutely necessary, that we feel both hope and fear about this future. If we only feel hope, we will blind ourselves to the very real potential downsides. If we only feel fear, we will deny ourselves the very meaningful benefits these technologies have the potential to provide.
A fascinating chapter in Hacking Darwin is entitled The End of Sex. And you see that as a good thing?
We humans will always be a sexually reproducing species, it’s just that we’ll reproduce increasingly less through the physical act of sex. We’re already seeing this with IVF. As the benefits of technology assisted reproduction increase relative to reproduction through the act of sex, many people will come to see assisted reproduction as a better way to reduce risk and, over time, possibly increase benefits. We’ll still have sex for all the other wonderful reasons we have it today, just less for reproduction. There will always be a critical place in our world for Italian romantics!
What are dangers of genetic hackers, perhaps especially if everyone’s DNA is eventually transcribed for medical purposes and available on the internet and in the cloud?
The sky is really the limit for how we can use gentic technologies to do things we may want, and the sky is also the limit for potential harms. It’s quite easy to imagine scenarios in which malevolent actors create synthetic pathogens designed to wreak havoc, or where people steal and abuse other people’s genetic information. It wouldn’t even need to be malevolent actors. Even well-intentioned researchers making unintended mistakes could cause real harm, as we may have seen with COVID-19 if, as appears likely to me, the pandemic stems for a research related incident]. That’s why we need strong governance and regulatory systems to optimize benefits and minimize potential harms. I was honored to have served on the World Health Organization Expert Advisory Committee on Human Genome Editing, were we developed a proposed framework for how this might best be achieved.
You foresee the equivalent of a genetic arms race between the world's most powerful countries. In what sense are genetic technologies similar to weapons?
Genetic technologies could be used to create incredibly powerful bioweapons or to build gene drives with the potential to crash entire ecosystems. That’s why thoughtful regulation is in order. Because the benefits of mastering and deploying these technologies are so great, there’s also a real danger of a genetics arms race. This could be extremely dangerous and will need to be prevented.
In your book, you express concern that states lacking Western conceptions of human rights are especially prone to misusing the science of genetics. Does this same concern apply to private companies? How much can we trust them to control and wield these technologies?
This is a conversation about science and technology but it’s really a conversation about values. If we don’t agree on what core values should be promoted, it will be nearly impossible to agree on what actions do and do not make sense. We need norms, laws, and values frameworks that apply to everyone, including governments, corporations, researchers, healthcare providers, DiY bio hobbyists, and everyone else.
We have co-evolved with our technology for a very long time. Many of our deepest beliefs have formed in that context and will continue to do so. But as we take for ourselves the powers we have attributed to our various gods, many of these beliefs will be challenged. We can not and must not jettison our beliefs in the face of technology, and must instead make sure our most cherished values guide the application of our most powerful technologies.
A conversation on international norms is in full swing in the field of AI, prompted by the release of ChatGPT4 earlier this year. Are there ways in which it’s inefficient, shortsighted or otherwise problematic for these discussions on gene technologies, AI and other advances to be occurring in silos? In addition to more specific guidelines, is there something to be gained from developing a universal set of norms and values that applies more broadly to all innovation?
AI is yet another technology where the potential to do great good is tied to the potential to inflict signifcant harm. It makes no sense that we tend to treat each technology on its own rather than looking at the entire category of challenges. For sure, we need to very rapidly ramp up our efforts with regard to AI norm-setting, regulations, and governance at all levels. But just doing that will be kind of like generating a flu vaccine for each individual flu strain. Far better to build a universal flu vaccine addressing common elements of all flu viruses of concern.
That’s why we also need to be far more deliberate in both building a global operating systems based around the mutual responsibilities of our global interdependence and, under that umbrella, a broader system for helping us govern and regulate revolutionary technologies. Such a process might begin with a large international conference, the equivalent of Rio 1992 for climate change, but then quickly work to establish and share best practices, help build parallel institutions in all countries so people and governamts can talk with each other, and do everything possible to maximize benefits and minimize risks at all levels in an ongoing and dynamic way.
At what point might genetic enhancements lead to a reclassfication of modified humans as another species?
We’ll still all be fellow humans for a very, very long time. We already have lots of variation between us. That is the essence of biology. Will some humans, at some point in the future, leave Earth and spend generations elsewhere? I believe so. In those new environments, humans will evolve, over time, differently than those if us who remain on this planet? This may sound like science fiction, but the sci-fi future is coming at us faster than most people realize.
Is the concept of human being changing?
Yes. It always has and always will.
Another big question raised in your book: what limits should we impose on the freedom to manipulate genetics?
Different societies will come to different conclusion on this critical question. I am sympathetic to the argument that people should have lots of say over their own bodies, which why I support abortion rights even though I recognize that an abortion can be a violent procedure. But it would be insane and self-defeating to say that individuals have an unlimited right to manipulate their own or their future children’s heritable genetics. The future of human life is all of our concern and must be regulated, albeit wisely.
In some cases, such as when we have the ability to prevent a deadly genetic disroder, it might be highly ethical to manipulate other human beings. In other circumstances, the genetic engineering of humans might be highly unethical. The key point is to avoid asking this question in a binary manner. We need to weigh the costs and benefits of each type of intervention. We need societal and global infrastrucutres to do that well. We don’t yet have those but we need them badly.
Can you tell us more about your next book?
The Great Biohack: Recasting Lifee in an Age of Revolutionary Technology, will come out in May 2024. It explores what the intersecting AI, genetics, and biotechnology revolutions will mean for the future of life on earth, including our healthcare, agriculture, industry, computing, and everything else. We are at a transitional moment for life on earth, equivalent to the dawn of agriculture, electricity, and industrialization. The key differentiator between better and worse outcomes is what we do today, at this early stage of this new transformation. The book describes what’s happening, what’s at stake, and what we each and all can and, frankly, must do to build the type of future we’d like to inhabit.
You’ve been a leader of international efforts calling for a full investigation into COVID-19 origins and are the founder of the global movement OneShared.World. What problem are you trying to solve through OneShared.World?
The biggest challenge we face today is the mismatch between the nature of our biggest problems, global and common, and the absence of a sufficient framework for addressing that entire category of challenges. The totally avoidable COVID-19 pandemic is one example of the extremet costs of the status quo. OneShared.World is our effort to fight for an upgrade in our world’s global operating system, based around the mutual responsibilities of interdependence. We’ve had global OS upgrades before after the Thirty Years War and after World War II, but wouldn’t it be better to make the necessary changes now to prevent a crisis of that level stemming from a nuclear war, ecosystem collapse, or deadlier synthetic biology pandemic rather than waiting until after? Revolutionary science is a global issue that must be wisely managed at every level if it is to be wisely managed at all.
How do we ensure that revolutionary technologies benefit humanity instead of undermining it?
That is the essential question. It’s why I’ve written Hacking Darwin, am writing The Great Biohack, and doing the rest of my work. If we want scietific revolutions to help, rather than hurt, us, we must all play a role building that future. This isn’t just a conversation about science, it’s about how we can draw on our most cherished values to guide the optimal development of science and technology for the common good. That must be everyone’s business.
Portions of this interview were first published in Grassia (Italy) and Zen Portugal.
Jamie Metzl is one of the world’s leading technology and healthcare futurists and author of the bestselling book, Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity, which has been translated into 15 languages. In 2019, he was appointed to the World Health Organization expert advisory committee on human genome editing. Jamie is a faculty member of Singularity University and NextMed Health, a Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council, and Founder and Chair of the global social movement, OneShared.World.
Called “the original COVID-19 whistleblower,” his pioneering role advocating for a full investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic has been featured in 60 Minutes, the New York Times, and most major media across the globe, and he was the lead witness in the first congressional hearings on this topic. Jamie previously served in the U.S. National Security Council, State Department, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee and with the United Nations in Cambodia. Jamie appears regularly on national and international media and his syndicated columns and other writing in science, technology, and global affairs are featured in publications around the world.
Jamie sits on advisory boards for multiple biotechnology and other companies and is Special Strategist to the WisdomTree BioRevolution Exchange Traded Fund. In addition to Hacking Darwin, he is author of a history of the Cambodian genocide, the historical novel The Depths of the Sea, and the genetics sci-fi thrillers Genesis Code and Eternal Sonata. His next book, The Great Biohack: Recasting Life in an age of Revolutionary Technology, will be published by Hachette in May 2024. Jamie holds a Ph.D. from Oxford, a law degree from Harvard, and an undergraduate degree from Brown and is an avid ironman triathlete and ultramarathon runner.
Scientists have long argued that gain-of-function research, which can make viruses and other infectious agents more contagious or more deadly, was necessary to develop therapies and vaccines to counter the pathogens in case they were used for biological warfare. As the SARS-CoV-2 origins are being investigated, one prominent theory suggests it had leaked from a biolab that conducted gain-of-function research, causing a global pandemic that claimed nearly 6.9 million lives. Now some question the wisdom of engaging in this type of research, stating that the risks may far outweigh the benefits.
“Gain-of-function research means genetically changing a genome in a way that might enhance the biological function of its genes, such as its transmissibility or the range of hosts it can infect,” says George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School. This can occur through direct genetic manipulation as well as by encouraging mutations while growing successive generations of micro-organism in culture. “Some of these changes may impact pathogenesis in a way that is hard to anticipate in advance,” Church says.
In the wake of the global pandemic, the pros and cons of gain-of-function research are being fiercely debated. Some scientists say this type of research is vital for preventing future pandemics or for preparing for bioweapon attacks. Others consider it another disaster waiting to happen. The Government Accounting Office issued a report charging that a framework developed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) provided inadequate oversight of this potentially deadly research. There’s a movement to stop it altogether. In January, the Viral Gain-of-Function Research Moratorium Act (S. 81) was introduced into the Senate to cease awarding federal research funding to institutions doing gain-of-function studies.
While testifying before the House COVID Origins Select Committee on March 8th, Robert Redfield, former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that COVID-19 may have resulted from an accidental lab leak involving gain-of-function research. Redfield said his conclusion is based upon the “rapid and high infectivity for human-to-human transmission, which then predicts the rapid evolution of new variants.”
“It is a very, very, very small subset of life science research that could potentially generate a potential pandemic pathogen,” said Gerald Parker, associate dean for Global One Health at Texas A&M University.
“In my opinion,” Redfield continues, “the COVID-19 pandemic presents a case study on the potential dangers of such research. While many believe that gain-of-function research is critical to get ahead of viruses by developing vaccines, in this case, I believe that was the exact opposite.” Consequently, Redfield called for a moratorium on gain-of-function research until there is consensus about the value of such risky science.
What constitutes risky?
The Federal Select Agent Program lists 68 specific infectious agents as risky because they are either very contagious or very deadly. In order to work with these 68 agents, scientists must register with the federal government. Meanwhile, research on deadly pathogens that aren’t easily transmitted, or pathogens that are quite contagious but not deadly, can be conducted without such oversight. “If you’re not working with select agents, you’re not required to register the research with the federal government,” says Gerald Parker, associate dean for Global One Health at Texas A&M University. But the 68-item list may not have everything that could possibly become dangerous or be engineered to be dangerous, thus escaping the government’s scrutiny—an issue that new regulations aim to address.
In January 2017, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issued additional guidance. It required federal departments and agencies to follow a series of steps when reviewing proposed research that could create, transfer, or use potential pandemic pathogens resulting from the enhancement of a pathogen’s transmissibility or virulence in humans.
In defining risky pathogens, OSTP included viruses that were likely to be highly transmissible and highly virulent, and thus very deadly. The Proposed Biosecurity Oversight Framework for the Future of Science, outlined in 2023, broadened the scope to require federal review of research “that is reasonably anticipated to enhance the transmissibility and/or virulence of any pathogen” likely to pose a threat to public health, health systems or national security. Those types of experiments also include the pathogens’ ability to evade vaccines or therapeutics, or diagnostic detection.
However, Parker says that dangers of generating a pandemic-level germ are tiny. “It is a very, very, very small subset of life science research that could potentially generate a potential pandemic pathogen.” Since gain-of-function guidelines were first issued in 2017, only three such research projects have met those requirements for HHS review. They aimed to study influenza and bird flu. Only two of those projects were funded, according to the NIH Office of Science Policy. For context, NIH funded approximately 11,000 of the 54,000 grant applications it received in 2022.
Guidelines governing gain-of-function research are being strengthened, but Church points out they aren’t ideal yet. “They need to be much clearer about penalties and avoiding positive uses before they would be enforceable.”
What do we gain from gain-of-function research?
The most commonly cited reason to conduct gain-of-function research is for biodefense—the government’s ability to deal with organisms that may pose threats to public health.
In the era of mRNA vaccines, the advance preparedness argument may be even less relevant.
“The need to work with potentially dangerous viruses is central to our preparedness,” Parker says. “It’s essential that we know and understand the basic biology, microbiology, etc. of some of these dangerous pathogens.” That includes increasing our knowledge of the molecular mechanisms by which a virus could become a sustained threat to humans. “Knowing that could help us detect [risks] earlier,” Parker says—and could make it possible to have medical countermeasures, like vaccines and therapeutics, ready.
Most vaccines, however, aren’t affected by this type of research. Essentially, scientists hope they will never need to use it. Moreover, Paul Mango, HSS former deputy chief of staff for policy, and author of the 2022 book Warp Speed, says he believes that in the era of mRNA vaccines, the advance preparedness argument may be even less relevant. “That’s because these vaccines can be developed and produced in less than 12 months, unlike traditional vaccines that require years of development,” he says.
Can better oversight guarantee safety?
Another situation, which Parker calls unnecessarily dangerous, is when regulatory bodies cannot verify that the appropriate biosafety and biosecurity controls are in place.
Gain-of-function studies, Parker points out, are conducted at the basic research level, and they’re performed in high-containment labs. “As long as all the processes, procedures and protocols are followed and there’s appropriate oversight at the institutional and scientific level, it can be conducted safely.”
Globally, there are 69 Biosafety Level 4 (BSL4) labs operating, under construction or being planned, according to recent research from King’s College London and George Mason University for Global BioLabs. Eleven of these 18 high-containment facilities that are planned or under construction are in Asia. Overall, three-quarters of the BSL4 labs are in cities, increasing public health risks if leaks occur.
Researchers say they are confident in the oversight system for BSL4 labs within the U.S. They are less confident in international labs. Global BioLabs’ report concurs. It gives the highest scores for biosafety to industrialized nations, led by France, Australia, Canada, the U.S. and Japan, and the lowest scores to Saudi Arabia, India and some developing African nations. Scores for biosecurity followed similar patterns.
“There are no harmonized international biosafety and biosecurity standards,” Parker notes. That issue has been discussed for at least a decade. Now, in the wake of SARS and the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists and regulators are likely to push for unified oversight standards. “It’s time we got serious about international harmonization of biosafety and biosecurity standards and guidelines,” Parker says. New guidelines are being worked on. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) outlined its proposed recommendations in the document titled Proposed Biosecurity Oversight Framework for the Future of Science.
The debates about whether gain-of-function research is useful or poses unnecessary risks to humanity are likely to rage on for a while. The public too has a voice in this debate and should weigh in by communicating with their representatives in government, or by partaking in educational forums or initiatives offered by universities and other institutions. In the meantime, scientists should focus on improving the research regulations, Parker notes. “We need to continue to look for lessons learned and for gaps in our oversight system,” he says. “That’s what we need to do right now.”