In which I became a conference blogger

The 20th International Congress of Genetics started in Berlin yesterday. This is the first time that I attend a meeting as a science blogger. An interesting experience since you look at the talks from a different perspective and you have to try to cover topics that are of general interest but often not really your area of expertise.

The conference started yesterday afternoon with a press conference with Rudi Balling, Alfred Nordheim, Mario Capecchi, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, Oliver Smithies and Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker. The International Congress of Genetics takes place every 5 years, but wasn't held in Germany since 1927. The main reason for this is the horrible crimes that were done between 1933 and 1945 in the name of “Eugenics” [1]. This dark history of Genetics in Germany was also discussed at the press conference. On July 14 there will be a special announcement by the German Society for Human Genetics (GfH), as this is the 75th anniversary of a German law that allowed the sterilisation of people with “genetic” diseases against their will. The GfH will say that they deeply regret the behavior of German geneticists during that time. This is a topic that has special meaning to me, since one of the leading German geneticists involved was Ottmar von Verschuer who is a cousin of my great-grandmother. The German Research Foundation (DFG) did extensive research on the involvement of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Society (which became the DFG after 1945) in the crimes committed between 1933 and 1945 in the beginning of this century (see this Nature News article).

Another topic debated in the press conference was the use of genetics to treat patients, more specifically gene therapy and stem cells. Mario Capecchi and others stressed that ethical decisions on these issues should be done by society and that the scientists would only provide the tools. Oliver Smithies pointed out that we should make the clear distinction between somatic gene therapy and gene therapy targeting the germline, and that the latter approach would be not only risky but in most cases uneccessary.

The expectations for the conference were nicely summarized by Oliver Smithies, who said that science happens in unexpected jumps, and that these jumps are often produced by people from whom you don't expect it.

fn1. I previously blogged about how the journal Nature was banned in Germany 70 years ago.

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5 Responses to In which I became a conference blogger

  1. Massimo Pinto says:

    Judging from the title I thought this was from Jennifer!
    Hi Martin, happy Sunday afternoon (Tour de France on the telly now), and thank you for this account.

  2. Maxine Clarke says:

    The only time I tried to blog from a confererence, I could not get the wireless connection to work. I must do better next time. Very interesting to read your account, Martin: will you be blogging from the other sessions?

  3. Matt Brown says:

    Martin and I only attended for the first two days, but “Roland Krause”: should be taking over from tomorrow. All our posts are collected under “this tag”:
    If you need to blog from a conference and have trouble with the wifi, I’d suggest seeking out the media room. I can’t imagine the organisers would have any objection to bloggers using the facilities if it gets coverage of the conference.

  4. Martin Fenner says:

    Massimo, I hope Jenny doesn’t mind the blog title.
    Maxine, I wrote the post in the press room, sitting right next to Matt. You would imagine that the press room would be full of bloggers writing away about this conference, but that was unfortunately not the case. There will be 1-2 more posts in the next few days.

  5. Maxine Clarke says:

    Looking forward to reading them, Martin and Matt, thanks.
    Blogging from a press room sounds really cool, I imagine Fedoras and cigarettes hanging out of mouths, while people yell down phones, etc. But I’m sure the reality is very different.