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global_futures 03/99

The Research Group on the Global Future's e-mail newsletter

01.03.1999 · Research Group on the Global Future

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Research Group on the Global Future Center for Applied Policy Research (CAP) Munich, Germany

All on biotechnology and digitalization this month.

(1) Governments postpone biosafety treaty
(2) An instant in the life of the internet
(3) Sale of Icelandic genetic information
(4) Practicalities of human cloning
(5) Noted in Passing



A legally binding protocol on biosafety has been on the international agenda since the early 90s. From February 14-23, the adoption of an agreement was discussed in the city of Cartagena, Colombia. However, talks were suspended on the last day of the conference when officials from 138 governments were not able to finalize the text of a legally binding protocol, that aims to reduce risks related to the transboundary movement of living modified organisms (LMOs, for example various food crops that have been genetically modified). As before, the talks stalled over a number of issues. Governments still disagree over the proposed scope of the treaty's regulatory powers. Some want to restrict the definiton of LMO to organisms intended for introduction into the environment. Others argue for a broader definition that would include agricultural commodities and products of LMOs. Liability is another controversial issue: if LMOs enter the environment and cause damage, who pays? There is also major concern about the fact that developing countries lack the technical, financial and institutional means to address biosafety. Yet another unresolved question relates to the protocol's relationship to the World Trade Organization and its various subsidiary agreements. When eventually adopted, the biosafety agreement is to form a protocol under the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity which was signed at the Rio Earth Summit. Its objectives are "the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources." The unfinished text of the protocol has now been passed to the Extraordinary Session of the Conference of the Parties (COP), which is the Convention's ultimate authority. The Session will resume at an unspecified later date and be responsible for finalizing and adopting the protocol text.

For further information see:



Remember 1994 on the internet? Gopher, ftp, telnet and Mosaic; dialup at 2400 baud or wrangle a university connection. Five years from now, will we look back on the internet in 1999 with the same mixture of marveling at all the changes and wondering how we made do with such limited possibilities? MIT's Sloan School of Management thinks so, and a team there has assembled an appropriate reminder of the current state of the art: a digital time capsule, sealed with encryption, containing signs of the times from an online parents' guide to talking about President Clinton's impeachment to online commerce offerings by eBay and Victoria's Secret. There are also predictions about the future of the net from luminaries such as Kofi Annan and Timothy Berners-Lee; you can make your own predictions on the time capsule's home page. The capsule will be opened in 2004 unless, of course, someone manages to break the encryption before then.

http://mitsloan.mit.edu/timecapsule/main.html http://mitsloan.mit.edu/timecapsule/predict.html#form



Iceland's decision to sell the rights to the entire nation's genetic code to Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche Holding Ltd. has stirred a highly controversial debate on the promise and risks of the genetic information age. The contract for the Icelanders' genetic heritage amounts to some 200 $ million, allowing Roche a five-year deal to develop new drugs and tests from the data. The strikingly uniform DNA of Iceland's populace is expected to provide an invaluable resource for studying human genetics, leading to fundamental insights into many diseases, proponents say. Although a majority of Iceland's citizens has already claimed to support the plan, which could make Iceland the first country to sell such information, a minority of scientists, doctors and a worldwide network of privacy advocates have stoked the controvesy. They fear the database could make the most private details of individuals' life public. People with mental illness or other health problems could be stigmatized or suffer from job discrimination. Patients may become less willing to divulge personal information to their doctors.

(Source: Washington Post)



Ever since the lamb Dolly made it to the news, the prospect of human cloning has been on the radar screen of both the public and the scientific world. Latest results in the cloning of several mammals have suggested that it might prove possible to clone a human being within the next couple of years. However, scientists from the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center in Beaverton, U.S., have now reported to have failed cloning a single monkey, despite having tried 135 times. Monkeys are more closely related to humans than are the sheep, mice and cattle that have been cloned so far. Therefore, there is reason enough to argue that monkeys are more representative of the practicality of cloning human beings. However, the science and art of reproductive manipulation - including embryo culture and embryo transfer to the female reproductive tract, which are key steps in cloning - are far more advanced for those species and for people than they are for monkeys. This is why scientists say they are reluctant to extrapolate from the monkey work any firm conclusion about the feasibility of eventually cloning human beings. Nonetheless, the failures in the Oregon experiment would highly suggest that anyone trying to clone a person should be prepared to work at it for a long time and have a large supply of volunteers willing to be experimental subjects.



The prospects for human germline engineering. How far are willing to go in reshaping the human form and psyche? by Gregory Stock, Director, Program on Medicine, Technology and Society, University of California, Los Angeles


Lucid essay on "germline" therapy which, according to the author, embodies the most profound possibilites and challenges of molecular genetics. Technology and Pleasure: Considering Hacking Constructive by Gisle Hannemyr, Deparment of Informatics, University of Oslo, Norway If you're with us this far, you're probably not confused about the several ways that the word hacker is used in mainstream media. In this essay Gisle Hannemyr provides a brief and lucid description of the several flavors of hackers, along with hackish ideals and their collision with commerce on the net, that's both a pleasure to read for long-time net observers and not too obscure for newcomers.




global_futures also offers an interactive forum. Recommendations, letters, and tips are welcomed by the editors, particularly on the topics of the digital future, biotechnology, sustainability and the new economy. Send all feedback to fgz@lrz.uni-muenchen.de.



Douglas Merrill, Patrick Meyer, Juergen Turek, Markus Vorbeck

Research Group on the Global Future
Center for Applied Policy Research
Geschwister Scholl Institute
Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich