New Technologies – taking on the challenge – Part Two


From the first moments of conception, new technologies are changing the way we live – and raising complex, controversial legal and ethical questions.

A Law Foundation-funded research centre at Otago University is stimulating debate around the appropriate boundaries of new technology, canvassing subjects as diverse as pre-natal screening, cyber-bullying and performance-enhancing drugs.

The first Director of the New Zealand Law Foundation Centre for Law and Policy in Emerging Technologies, Associate Professor Colin Gavaghan, is a leading international scholar in medical law and ethics.

Associate Professor Colin Gavaghan

“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.”

As head of New Zealand’s only body examining the legal, ethical and policy issues around new technologies, Colin gets to cast his net wide.

For example, in 2011 the Centre published a major report on the adequacy of regulatory systems for nanotechnologies.

A 2011 conference hosted by the Centre, The Future of Fairness, questioned ideas of fairness and justice in light of emerging technologies. Other events have covered the Wikileaks phenomenon, the challenge of neuroscience to law and the Government’s proposals to tackle cyber-bullying.

Colin tries to bring all relevant perspectives to bear on these issues. For example, the Centre’s blog and Facebook page crackle with debate on issues like pre-natal screening for Down’s Syndrome, providing a forum for informed consideration of this emotional issue.

“So many of these discussions take place behind paywalls and peer review journals. We are trying to engage other stakeholders and interested parties.

“There is a danger of too much fragmentation – lawyers look at one perspective, doctors another. Bringing people together can be incredibly valuable,” he says.

The Centre was created following completion of the Law Foundation’s 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.

Biotechnology issues remain central to the Centre’s work – it was closely involved with the 4th Australia-New Zealand Round Table on Genomics at Queenstown in 2013.

Colin says rapid developments in biotechnology continue to pose challenging questions around, for example, pre-natal screening.

“It has long been possible to identify genetic abnormalities – it is now possible to identify just the propensity for heart disease and cancer. Should we allow parents to pre-screen for these things, when they won’t occur until later life – if at all?”

As director of a small centre, Colin values being able to collaborate across Otago’s acknowledged expertise in disciplines like medicine, neuroscience and philosophy. He also appreciates the risk of being spread too thin: “There is a danger in having a little to say about a lot. We have tried to concentrate on a few things where the Centre can have useful input.”

Law Foundation Executive Director Lynda Hagen says the Human Genome Research Project was the Foundation’s first foray into sustained long-term research.

“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 project, conducted by Otago’s Law Faculty, produced several volumes of ground-breaking research, drawing on legal and academic expertise from around the world.

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

Human Genome Reearch Project

NZLF Centre for Law and Policy in Emerging Technologies

Centre for Emerging Technologies Facebook Page

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