Genomics and Society course at Texas A&M explores social, ethical and policy issues

Writer: Blair Fannin, 979-845-2259,
Contact: Dr. Jason Cleere, 979-845-6931,

COLLEGE STATION – A Texas A&M University course is giving students a look at both social and policy issues related to genomics technology in agriculture.

Philosophy 489/689 Genomics and Society is directed by three instructors – Dr. Penny Riggs, a faculty member in the department of animal science, philosophy professor Dr. Clare Palmer and Dr. T.J. Kasperbauer, a recent philosophy doctoral graduate – all at Texas A&M in College Station.

Riggs said the course was first offered in the springof 2011 with 25 students enrolling.The current course, offered this past spring semester, featured participation by both graduate and undergraduate students in philosophy, animal science, genetics and other disciplines. The students engaged in lively discussions with varying opinions, Riggs said.


Philosophy 489/689 Genomics and Society provides students a look at both social and policy issues related to genomics technology in agriculture. (Texas A&M AgriLife Research photo by Blair Fannin)

“This is a fun course that encourages critical thinking and discussion of issues,” Riggs said. “It really gets the students engaged in thinking about complex, topical problems, and helps them understand other perspectives.”

Philosophy 489/689 Genomics and Society provides students a look at both social and policy issues related to genomics technology in agriculture. (Texas A&M AgriLife Research photo by Blair Fannin)

“It looks at a variety of issues affected by advances in genomics technology, such as genetic modification of organisms, epigenetics, privacy issues and livelihoods,” Riggs said.

Course objectives upon completion include understanding the basic scientific concepts related to genomics, providing a clear and accurate account of different practices in genomic science, taking part in discussion and debate about issues in genomics in an open-minded, reasonable and reasoned way, demonstrating critical thinking, questioning one’s own assumptions, engaging with others’ arguments, and showing willingness to reconsider and reformulate positions.

The course is funded by the National Science Foundation, which provides support for visiting speakers, management and provision of online materials, Riggs said.

“The NSF funds have allowed us to bring in some outstanding visiting speakers,” Riggs said. “These speakers are international leaders in science and ethics, with expertise in GMOs, synthetic biology, cloning and transgenic crops,to name a few. It’s an incredible opportunity for the students to benefit from an internationally distinguished lineup of lecturers.”

Visiting speakers John Glass and William Nierman from the J. Craig Venter Institute provided insight into breakthroughs in synthetic biologyand infectious diseases, respectively. National Academy scientist Fred Gould with N.C. State University, talked about genomic technology’s impact on insects and crops.Ethicist Peter Sandoe of the University of Copenhagen, described the early development of Dolly the sheep and the ethical issues that arise from cloning animals. Eric Lindquist with the University of Idaho, a founding member of the course instructor team, introduced public policy course, and John Basl from Northeastern University discussed the ethics of  human enhancement.

In addition to the course instructors, Riggs said, “We were fortunate to have several local faculty contribute to the course. For example, Gary Mullins from the Borlaug Institute talked to us about his experiences from the Africa sub-Saharan. Wendy Jepson, geography, talked about impacts of GMO crops in Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, and discussed political economies and environmental justice issues.  Tim Devarenne, biochemistry and biophysics, discussed synthetic biology applications to biofuels, and Mark Westhusin, veterinary pathobiology, described his experiences with animal cloning.”

The course brings together students from a variety of backgrounds and at all levels. It includes undergraduate and graduate students, students working toward doctorates in genetics, geography, philosophy and other disciplines, as well as undergraduates from diverse disciplines.

“It aims to stimulate discussion and debate by having many different perspectives represented in the classroom, including perspectives both from those who are practicing scientists and those who are thinking about the practice of science from the outside,” Palmer said. “We hope that students have encountered arguments from classmates that they would not otherwise have heard or considered.”

Palmer said they use case studies in both discussion and assessment,to encourage students to adopt interdisciplinary approaches, to think critically and to explore the different and potentially conflicting values at stake in actual examples.

“The course has given students the opportunity to engage with speakers at the cutting edge of scientific research, policy-making and philosophical debate about different areas of genetic and genomic science, which I think is unique at Texas A&M.”

Kasperbauer said he thinks the case studies are particularly important for the class.

“We’ve tried to bring the students up to speed on the most pressing ethical issues arising out of projects that have either recently been completed or are currently under way. These case studies are really on the ‘bleeding’ edge of research in genomics. For instance, students have written about and analyzed recent proposals to revive extinct species of animals, the creation of the first synthetic organism, GM salmon for people to eat and GM crops in developing countries.”

He said the course ended by addressing issues more directly relevant to human health.

“These stimulated interesting discussion. For instance, students assessed proposals to use organs from genetically modified animals for transplantation to humans. We  also discussed privacy issues in gene therapy, including recent controversies over the mandatory Newborn Screening Program in Texas.”

He said the course is  “probably the most interdisciplinary class I’ve been a part of at Texas A&M, as either a student or instructor.”

“The class has shown me how much overlap there is between the sciences and the humanities, and how much untapped potential exists for collaboration. For the philosophers, the class forces them to confront the ethical issues facing scientists and to really think about how their training as philosophers can be useful. For the scientists, the class offers an opportunity to think more in depth about problems they regularly face but might not get a chance to explore in any detail.”

An online course is in the process of being developed together with Lauren Cifuentes at Texas A&M – Corpus Christi.


via AgriLife Today | Genomics and Society course at Texas A&M explores social, ethical and policy issues

For more information regarding news from the Department of Animal Science, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Texas A&M University, please contact Maggie Tucker at or (979) 845-1542.

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