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GE3LS Talk with Dr. Eric Meslin

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Eric M. Meslin, PhD, FCAHS
President and CEO of the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA)

  1. You recently chaired Genome Canada’s Expert Panel that reviewed Genome Canada’s integrated GE3LS strategy. Why did Genome Canada undertake this review?
    • Genome Canada has always been a leader in GE3LS, and as leading organizations do (and should do), they wanted to take a thoughtful look at one aspect of the overall GE3LS portfolio -- the effectiveness of integrated GE3LS in facilitating the translation of genomics research. What this means in simple terms, is assessing how well Genome Canada’s GE3LS research is usefully part of genomic science projects. We’ve known for some time that simply putting a GE3LS researcher into the lab is not especially impactful. The key is figuring out what works best, what are the impediments to successful integration?  
  2. Briefly, what did the panel find?
    • We concluded that the GE3LS model still has much to recommend, but that it can’t rest on its laurels. Genome Canada needs to make it easier to enable GE3LS researchers and genomic scientists to work together, to build more GE3LS capacity especially in partnership with the Genome Centres, and to signal the value of GE3LS by developing more national leadership on this topic. Canada has a wealth of “resources” in this space; it needs to be unlocked, and widely used.
  3. Many people may not think of genomics in general, and Genome Canada in particular, as a social science/humanities funding agency, but GE3LS makes us truly interdisciplinary. Why is this multidisciplinary approach important for genomics?
    • From the earliest days of the Human Genome Project, there has been widespread recognition of the need and overwhelming support for research to anticipate and address ethical, legal, and social issues. This knowledge is valuable at many levels – it helps genomics researchers design better studies; it helps clinicians better understand how to discuss the risks and benefits of genetic tests with patients; and it helps investors, regulators, and policy makers promote the responsible adoption of genomics for the benefit of society. The true genius of the GE3LS approach was showing how the social science and humanities are required partners in the co-generation of new knowledge and not simply a nice logo to add to the letterhead.
  4. Is there anything uniquely Canadian in the GE3LS space?
    • In my mind, GE3LS has always been one of Canada’s greatest contributions to the worldwide genomic effort. The US may have developed the first program, the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ELSI) program to examine these issues, but GE3LS went further in three ways; first it expanded the conversation beyond those three disciplines to explicitly include economic and environmental issues; second, GE3LS is not limited to funding researchers to carry out work in their own discipline, but to actively and intentionally collaborate with genomic researchers; third, GE3LS is not limited to human health issues, but is engaged across all sectors of Genome Canada’s platforms – forestry, aquaculture, agriculture, environment, energy, mining.
  5. What is the biggest issue facing genomics in the next decade and how can GE3LS research contribute?
    • Tough call, but it would be hard to dismiss the importance of the collision between artificial intelligence and genomics. The speed of innovation even in one area of AI, machine learning, may have profound implications for the entire genomic and health environment, from improvements in finding genes for rare diseases, to designing new medicines, to diagnostics. GE3LS researchers are ideally positioned do what they do best -- first: “map” the new terrain; then begin to “sequence” the issues. In other words, find out what the issues are, figure out their complexity, then start to propose implementable solutions. The fascinating point about the collision of AI & genomics is that it will implicate familiar issues like privacy, discrimination, access, justice, consent, but they will be framed within an environment where change is occurring very quickly in other areas: work, business development, finance, security. It will be a very exciting future, and we’ll need all hands on deck.    
  6. Ok, we’re all going out later for karaoke. What song do you sing and why?
    • Easy. Doobie Brothers: “Takin’ it to the Streets”. (Betcha didn’t see that coming).