New technologies – taking on the challenge – Part One


About a decade ago, Law Foundation Executive Director Lynda Hagen decided it was time the Foundation stepped up a gear. “We wanted to take on a project that could make a lasting difference to a challenging area of law and public policy – something important that might not otherwise be done,” she says.

The result was the Human Genome Research Project, a multi-year, multi-million dollar investigation into the many sensitive legal issues around biotechnology, including reproductive technologies, newborn screening and genetic testing on children.

The project, conducted by the Otago University Law Faculty, produced several volumes of ground-breaking research, drawing on legal and academic expertise from around the world. Otago Law Faculty Dean Professor Mark Henaghan says the Law Foundation’s investment has created an important legacy.

“We now have a body of knowledge on human reproductive technology that will be an invaluable resource for current and future generations of lawyers and policy makers,” he says.

The Human Genome Project reports have been used extensively in New Zealand by the Advisory Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology (ACART) and influential in Australia through Hon. Michael Kirby and the Australia-New Zealand Roundtable on Genomics. The reports have been cited widely in both the UK and the USA.

One of the aims of the project was to raise the capability in New Zealand in these emerging areas. That aim has been well and truly met with research opportunities and support provided to two post-doctoral graduates and five doctoral candidates, the completion of four masters degrees, and the supervision of six undergraduates at LLB (Hons) level.

But the work doesn’t end there – the Law Foundation has endowed a Chair and established the NZ Law Foundation Centre for Law and Policy in Emerging Technologies at Otago to continue research in this complex and rapidly-changing field. The first Director of the Centre, Associate Professor Colin Gavaghan, is a leading international scholar in medical law and ethics.

Associate Professor Colin Gavaghan

He heads the only New Zealand-based research centre examining the legal, ethical and policy issues around new technologies. These include biotechnology, nanotechnology, alternative bio-energy, information and communication technologies, robotics and artificial intelligence.

“Scientific advancement is constantly throwing up new issues in law and ethics around emerging technologies,” he says. “These issues need to be debated in a constructive and informed way, and our work is contributing to that.”

On 22 and 23 March, the New Zealand Law Foundation Centre for Law & Policy in Emerging Technologies, together with Genetics Otago, hosted a symposium on The Future of Fairness. The event, which focused on the complex relationship between emerging technologies and our ideas of justice or fairness, included guest speakers from the United Kingdom and the USA, as well as experts from throughout New Zealand. The symposium – which included a public talk in the evening – was attended by well over a hundred speakers and audience members, including representatives of at least ten different faculties and departments throughout the University. The organisers intend for this to be a launch-pad for a series of events and publications aiming to cast further light on the questions raised in the symposium.

In December 2010, the Centre completed the first review of New Zealand’s regulatory system relating to nanotechnology. The nanotechnology review was funded by the Ministry of Science and Innovation/Ministry of Research, Science and Technology. It is currently with the Ministry, and is likely to be released within the next month or two. Several articles drawing from the findings of this project are already in various stages of completion, including some which have already been submitted to peer-reviewed journals.

The Centre will continue to host experts to collaborate with on projects involving nanotechnology, assisted reproductive technology, ethics and emerging technologies, internet democracy, social networking and digital media technologies, and genomics policy and research.

Human Genome Research Project
NZ Law Foundation Centre for Law and Policy in Emerging Technologies

The Law Foundation provided funding of $2,519,184 for the Human Genome Research Project, and an endowment of $1,500,000 to fund the NZLF Centre and Chair in Emerging Technologies.

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