Caplan is the Emmanuel and Robert Hart Professor of Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and director of its Center for Bioethics.
He was named Person of the Year by USA Today in 2001 and one of the 10 most influential people in science by Discover magazine in 2008.
In his lecture, Caplan said genetic engineering and synthetic biology are topics that everyone should be thinking about. He said the benefits of genetically engineering microbes are coming much quicker than doing genetic engineering on the human level.
“I believe that engineering microbes is actually the solution to some of our biggest challenges,” Caplan said.
He also said we must be aware “they are powerful” and have the potential to hurt us.
When handled properly, however, and the ethical implications are considered thoroughly beforehand, Caplan said the technology is great and “something that we want to pursue.”
Some of the ethical implications he wants scientists and policy makers to consider are the risk of new life forms escaping and polluting or interbreeding with existing life forms, amateur scientists using the technology without regulation and the possibility of the technology being using by terrorists or falling into malevolent hands.
“(Terrorists) can make nasty microbes worse,” Caplan said. “Or find a way to make things that we have antidotes for or vaccines against resistant to our treatments.”
In addition to these concerns, Caplan said there is also the issue of whether we should be “playing God” by creating “something that never existed before.”
“The ethics is right next to the science in terms of where it is,” Caplan said. He said the science, however, will not wait for the regulation to catch up.
“We have to ask politicians to think about these issues,” he said.
He said there is no consensus on who is in charge of regulating work in this field and that it could fall under the jurisdiction of a number of different agencies.
“That’s a very big political pitfall for a very promising, powerful technology”
Caplan said the burden of responsibility should fall on scientists to be reasonably cautious when using this technology, journals to control what information is widely published and the government to monitor public safety and national security.
“The greatest way to handle risk is to manage it early,” Caplan said. “It is not to ignore it or run away from it.”
Caplan said it is important for the public to understand and care about this science because without public support, funding won’t be put toward it.
“At the end of the day the public is really the engine for science,” Caplan said. “They have to understand it.”