Q&A with Jamie Metzl
Progressing at breakneck speed, genetic engineering has seen significant advance since the first time Jamie Metzl addressed the topic at the Vail Symposium in 2015 to a sold out audience. Metzl will return on Thursday, February 9, offering the latest update on the science and implications of this world-changing technology.
Metzl, an annual speaker at the Symposium, is a Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council and an expert in Asian affairs and biotechnology policy. He previously served as Executive Vice President of the Asia Society, Deputy Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senior Coordinator for International Public Information at the U.S. State Department, Director for Multilateral Affairs on the National Security Council, and as a Human Rights Officer for the United Nations in Cambodia.
Also a novelist, Metzl explores the challenging issues raised by new technologies and revolutionary science in his science fiction writing. His latest novel, “Eternal Sonata,” imagines a future global struggle to control the science of extreme human life extension. This world, according to Metzl, is not far off.
Metzl will speak at Colorado Mountain College in Edwards on February 9. There will be a 30-minute reception at 5:30 p.m. and the program will begin at 6 p.m. Click here for tickets.
(Q)What sort of progress has the genetics revolution made since you first addressed the issue in front of the Vail Symposium audience last year?
(A) The genetics revolution is charging forward at a blistering, exponentially accelerating pace. Virtually every day, major progress is being made deciphering the genome, describing gene editing tools to alter the genetic makeup of plants, animals, or even humans, and outlining how gene drives can be used to push genetic changes across populations. Even if this rate of change slows, it’s absolutely clear to me that these new technologies will transform health care in the short to medium-term and alter our evolution as a species in the medium to long-term.
(Q)Despite your scholarly background on the topic, you’ve again chosen to use science fiction writing as a way to encompass real issues surrounding the progress in genetics science. How does your new book, “Eternal Sonata,” based in 2025, two years after the setting of your first genetics thriller, “Genesis Code,” reflect the true pace, opportunities and consequences of genetic science?
The genetic revolution is too important to be left only or even primarily to the experts. I write non-fiction articles and spend a lot of time with expert groups, but the general public must be an equal stakeholder in the dialogue about our genetic future. I aspire for my novels to be fun and exciting, but also to help people who might be a little afraid of science find a more accessible on-ramp to thinking about the many complex, challenging, human issues associated with technological innovation.
I fully believe we’ll be seeing significant growth in human health and life-spans over the coming decades, but this progress will also raise some thorny questions we’ll need to address. Like “Genesis Code,” it’s based on real science and tries to explore what it will mean on a human level when new technologies begin to transform our understanding of our own mortality.
(Q) How much weight should society put on concerns and opportunities of genetics science, or actually making conscious alterations to humans as a species?
Advances in genetic technologies will help us live longer, healthier, more robust lives and we should all be very, very excited about that. Like all technologies, however, there will also be new opportunities for abuse. That’s why we need to have the broadest, most inclusive global dialogue possible to help us develop new norms and standards that can guide our actions going forward. The technologies are new but the best values we will need to deploy to use them wisely are old.
(Q) Has there, then, been any progress in policy to regulate genetics science, or legal framework created to limit the radical changes this could have on society?
There is a real mismatch between the rapid pace of scientific advancement and the glacial pace of regulation. On the one hand, we don’t want over-regulation killing this very promising field in its relative infancy. On the other, it is clear that all aspects of altering the human genome must be regulated. This challenge is all the greater because different countries have different belief systems and ethical traditions, so there is a deep need for a global norm-creation and then regulatory harmonization process.
(Q) Do you have any insight on how changes in the administration will affect progress in this field of science?
Many people are worried about how the new administration will deal with these very complex scientific issues. Viewing genetic technologies in the context of the abortion debate would be a significant blow to this work in the United States. But the science is global and even if the US shuts down all of its labs for ideological or other reasons, the science will advance elsewhere. We’ll just lose our lead building the future as we wait forever for the coalmining and low-end manufacturing jobs to come back.