The importance of understanding the life sciences


Help is at hand to inform opinion on such controversial topics as gene therapy, stem cell use, functional foods and biofuel production

THE ROYAL Irish Academy has announced the publication of a series of statements focusing on the life sciences.

The publications are meant to inform the public and help them develop opinions on issues such as gene therapy, diet and biofuel production.

Socially and economically, Ireland is heavily involved in the life sciences in areas such as pharmaceuticals, medical devices and agriculture, says Prof Clive Lee, chairman of the Royal Irish Academy life sciences committee.

This research area consistently throws up controversial issues, subjects that the public should understand, he says.

His committee won agreement within the academy for the publication of a series of statements on life sciences issues with the main purpose being “to inform the general public”, he says. “It is important that the public understand the big principles.”

The committee will prepare a number of statements under a range of headings, says Lee, who is also professor of anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

These include a detailed examination of “nutraceuticals” and functional foods, gene therapy, stem cells used in medical treatments, the clash between biofuel and food production, and diet and physical activity, to name a few.

The objective is to present current scientific findings on these issues, written for the non expert and meant to clarify and explain. They will help the general public to establish informed opinions, Lee says.

The statements will also help people establish the political dimensions of these issues and as a result help to form a policy framework.

This morning the academy releases an introductory statement entitled The Need for Life Sciences in Ireland,written by Prof Alexander Evans of University College Dublin.

Aspects of the life sciences are bound up in a range of social issues such as ageing, the control of infectious disease, environmental challenges from global warming to waste management and the threat to biodiversity, Evans writes.

The life sciences help us understand lifestyle health choices and healthy eating, but they also challenge our understanding of life in the application of advanced biological sciences.

The public “wonder about the ethical, social and legal implications of biotechnology research and development”, he argues.

In parallel, the life sciences also make a major contribution to our economy, more so than many realise.

Ireland provides a home to 13 of the top 15 global companies in this sector and manufactures nine of the world’s top 15 medicines, in the process ranking as a country as the largest net exporter of medicines globally.

“Today the life sciences sector generates almost one third of total exports from Ireland and employs in excess of 52,000 people in over 350 enterprises,” Evans says.

The preparation of public statements on the life sciences is very much in keeping with what the academy does, says Lee. “Its role is to promote excellence in scholarship and promoting research.”

This also includes disseminating the results of research to the public, as indicated in the academy’s mission statement, which reads: “[The academy] will reflect upon, advise on and contribute to public debate and public policy formation on issues of major interest in science, technology and culture.”

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