Fulfilling the Genomic Promise

Genetics has brought science to the brink of a new era of enlightenment, in which individuals are understood in terms of the relationship between their unique genomic data. But a more integrated research agenda that includes the social sciences is crucial to ensuring that the promise of genetic research benefits all.

VIENNA – For most people, a promise is a reason to expect something, a well-founded hope without hype. And it is a promise in this sense that connects science to society: the public trusts that scientific and technological advancement are the keys to navigating the uncertain road to a better world, in which future generations can live longer, healthier, and happier lives.

This promise originated almost 400 years ago, with the institutionalization of modern science. After discovering that mathematics could be applied to understanding the physical world, a small group of natural philosophers turned toward experimental empiricism with practical objectives. Spearheaded by this minority, the scientific revolution swept through Europe and, later, spread to the rest of the world.

In his Instauratio Magna, Francis Bacon, one of modern science’s most articulate proponents, conveyed a vision of a new world, transformed through the systematic inquiry of natural phenomena. By imitating and twisting nature, he declared, its secrets would be revealed – and could be manipulated to improve humans’ lives. Bacon’s pragmatic objective of using a scientific understanding of natural causes to “effect all things possible” – what is now called innovation – was science’s original promise to society, and formed the core of the Age of Enlightenment.