One recent Supreme Court decision with a huge implication for the future of science was the Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics. In a unanimous ruling, the Court stated that human genes may not be patented and drew a sharp distinction between DNA formed in nature and DNA synthesized in a laboratory. While the decision was a long-awaited victory, it also raised a few eyebrows due to the majority opinion’s statement that “A naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent-eligible merely because it has been isolated, but cDNA is patent eligible because it is not naturally occurring.”
Close, but no cigar. cDNA, or complementary DNA, do form naturally when retroviruses, such as HIV, use an enzyme called reverse transcriptase to convert their genomic RNA into DNA that can then be integrated into their infected hosts.
Adding to the confusion, Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the majority opinion, confirmed the naturalness of cDNA by stating that “the nucleotide sequence of cDNA is dictated by nature, not by the lab technician” while also stating that the laboratory technician “unquestionably creates something new when cDNA is made.” To acknowledge potential errors in the Court’s decision, former Justice Antonin Scalia issued a concurrence, saying that while the court had reached the right result, it had gone astray in “going into fine details of molecular biology” that he was unable to affirm on his own knowledge.
The scientific inaccuracies in the Court’s ruling, as well as Scalia’s acknowledgment, underscore the complicated relationship between science and the other institutions that govern our lives. With the breakneck pace of scientific discovery across disciplines, it is unsurprising to see the law and ethics lagging far behind.
However, given that science and technology affect every dimension of our lives, the resolution of many modern-day problems from personal health choices to the search for alternative fuels requires a considerable amount of input from the scientific field. Therefore, society must address the potential social and ethical challenges that arise from rapid scientific and technological innovation. These challenges include the preservation of rights and the maintenance of an informed citizenry.To keep the public educated about scientific advances, those in the humanities will play an integral role in both educating non-scientists and crafting policies that affect scientists. Specifically, future writers, journalists, lawyers and policy-makers must be well versed on the intricacies of science as well as its potential social and ethical impact in society.
This education is already occurring at a number of colleges and institutions, where a number of science departments offer courses for non-science majors who want to explore the sciences. For instance, at Dartmouth College (my alma mater), the biological details of the aforementioned court case would have been evident to students who had taken “Genes and Society.” Other institutions, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology OpenCourseWare offers a comprehensive list of courses in “science, technology, and society,” Harvard University offers a concentration in history and science, Brown University offers an interdisciplinary concentration in science and society, the University of Pennsylvania offers a major and a minor in science technology and society within its Department of History and Sociology of Science and Cornell University offers science and technology studies and allows biology majors to “combine biology with exposure to perspectives from the social sciences and humanities on the social, political and ethical aspects of modern biology.”
It is imperative that colleges educate their future graduates on sciences’ growing reach through the lens of the humanities. Society will increasingly look for graduates who are not only culturally and socially literate, but also knowledgeable in science and technology. All colleges and universities need to be mindful of the potential importance of science in all fields, lest it fail to bridge the widening gap between the sciences and the humanities.
A version of this article was previously published in The Dartmouth.
Check out my new book aimed at helping college students excel in science, What Every Science Student Should Know (University of Chicago Press)