Moratoria in Science:
Banning areas of research is very counterintuitive to the very premise of fundamental research. Yet research interests can easily transgress the moral compass of society. An unforgettable example of such experimentation is the genetic studies performed by the Nazi physician Josef Mengele. Such experimentation clearly has no space in modern science. But on other topics, biologists are divided on the way forward.
In a recent Nature article, 18 scientists and bioethicists have called for a 5-year global moratorium on clinical applications of germline gene editing. They argue that germline gene editing should be considered only if there is compelling need and that a nation willing to experiment should “give public notice of its intention to consider the application and engage for a defined period in international consultation about the wisdom of doing so; determines through transparent evaluation that the application is justified; and ascertains that there is broad societal consensus in the nation about the appropriateness of the application.” The scientists believe that this 5 year time period would help create an international framework for approaching germline gene editing applications. They are clear that the ban should apply only for clinical use of germline gene editing, not for research. (Read more)
Are sexual harassers worthy of being elite scientists?
The US National Academy of Sciences is taking a vote to change its bylaws to eject members who have been proven guilty of sexual harassment or other misconduct. As other professions and even religious institutions worldwide take steps to deal with sexual harassment issues, this announcement from the Academy comes as no surprise. In fact, it would be considered warranted and in pace with the actions of others post the #metoo movement. To many this vote may be a foregone conclusion and would encourage the Academy to address this important issue.
Yet noted scientist Robert Weinberg – famous for giving us the hallmarks of cancer – has called this mission a crusade, opining, “Before there is a mad rush to approve such an ejection procedure, it might be useful to ask whether sexual harassment by a member has anything whatsoever to do with their credibility as a scientist and the soundness of their research accomplishments—the criteria that were used to elect them in the first place.” (Read more)
Oil palm plantations in Andaman and Nicobar
Administrators from Andaman and Nicobar islands have petitioned the Supreme Court to revoke a 16 year old ban that prevents oil palm plantations on the islands. Plantation had begun in late 1970s, with an area of 2700 ha. However, in 1986 the Union environment ministry banned the plantation project citing its negative impact on the environment. By the time this order came through. over 1500 ha was already under oil palm plantation. In 2002 the Supreme Court of India banned any monoculture oil palm plantation in the area.
Oil palm plantations have been known to have severe ecological impacts. In 1996, the Central Agricultural Research Institute reported that monoculture oil palm plantations result in the loss of soil productivity and fertility, disrupt hydrological cycles and are responsible for introducing exotic species and pests. This has led to a very rampant degradation of the forest cover in the area. (Read more)
Meanwhile, here are three new things we learnt about the human species
A new old cousin: In a cave in Philippines, scientists have discovered fossils belonging to an extinct human species. The Homo luzonensis is thought to have inhabited the island – you would never guess its name – Luzon nearly 50,000 years ago. The physical characteristics determined from the fossils have not been seen together in any other fossils. Homo luzonensis is thought to have stood at no longer than 3 feet and had multiple roots in the front teeth instead of the single root that is present in our front teeth. (Read more)