We are in the early stages of a major revolution in life sciences and biotechnology that will impact every aspect of our society. The major benefits on the horizon will only be realized if society accepts biotechnology and resulting products as ethical and safe.

Over the past 12 years, I have conducted research on the social acceptance of biotechnology. On one hand, consumers want to know what’s in it for them. On the other, they want to know that credible institutions are carefully considering what society stands to gain or lose from new developments. One reaction is to ban certain areas of scientific research. Just as troubling would be to let the market sort out the winners from the losers in the usual fashion. We need a middle path to biotechnological development.

Since universities have played a major role in the development and promotion of science and technology, we also have an obligation to help society understand and manage the changes that arise from biotechnology and genomics. We must ensure that our knowledge and tools are used ethically and safely.

These issues require the full range of disciplines within the university. A significant expansion of social science research will be needed to elucidate the full range of views from our complex global society. Such research will also shed light on the information gaps that scientists must bridge when trying to talk with consumers. The impact of such an integrated approach will be enhanced public understanding of, trust in, and support for our scientific institutions. The goal of the newly formed Center for Biotechnology in Global Society (CBIGS) at NC State is to ensure that public and private decisions about biotechnology are based on accurate, timely and relevant information. Interdisciplinary research is underway to meet this goal. The center is uniquely positioned to anticipate and address issues such as those related to bioethics, global trade, food safety, and biodiversity. With a holistic focus on the full range of biotechnology applications, we hope to provide societal leadership as we enter the Century of Biology.

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