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Legal issues surrounding science and technology are increasing exponentially alongside the pace of innovation. Helping to direct traffic at this ever-more-congested intersection of disciplines is Gary Marchant, faculty director of the Center for Law, Science and Innovation at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.
Marchant has led the center for more than 20 years, focusing on emerging technologies and how they should be governed — things such as artificial intelligence, human gene editing, nanotechnology and neuroscience. During his time at ASU Law, he has been named a Regents Professor, a distinguished sustainability scientist in ASU’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and a Lincoln professor of emerging technologies, law and ethics with the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics at ASU. He has also authored more than 150 articles and book chapters on various issues relating to emerging technologies.
“These are all technologies that are moving very quickly, raising a lot of concerns, but they are going forward because they have almost unlimited benefits,” Marchant said. “We don't want to stop that progress, but we need to have some way to manage the types of concerns they raise. And our traditional government mechanisms of regulation are just too slow to keep up with these technologies. It’s what I call the Pacing Problem. So what I’m looking at are alternative methods to try to keep up with these type of technologies.”
Marchant is playing a leading role in the high-stakes race, and he was recently elected by his peers as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
“Professor Marchant is the reason ASU Law has been at the forefront of law, science and innovation,” ASU Law Dean Douglas Sylvester said. “He has long been recognized as one of the preeminent scholars in his field, and this well-deserved recognition reflects that.”
Formed in 1848, the AAAS has a stated mission to “advance science, engineering and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people.” It began electing fellows, a lifetime distinction, in 1874 to honor invaluable contributions to science and technology.
There were 443 honorees this year, covering each of the association’s 24 categories, and they will be honored at the AAAS annual meeting in Seattle on Feb. 15. Marchant was one of eight fellows named in the Societal Impacts of Science and Engineering sector, for distinguished contributions to research, teaching and outreach at the intersections of law, science and biotechnology, including important work with legislative, executive and judicial groups.
“AAAS is the world’s largest scientific organization, so it’s a nice honor to be recognized by such a prestigious group,” Marchant said.
A few decades ago, the world was far less advanced, and technology was rather easy to regulate.
“It used to be, we just had a few products in our house,” Marchant said. “We had a TV, a car, a few other things. Now with the digital era and all these biomedical innovations, from Fitbits on our wrists to our cell phones that are monitoring things, to the Amazon Echo (devices) and the Google Home (units) in our homes, now technology is everywhere.”
And technological innovation is a double-edged sword, holding the potential to solve many of the world’s biggest problems — while creating a whole new array of them.
In the 30-year history of ASU Law’s Center for Law, Science and Innovation, the center has become an established leader in addressing those problems and was the first in the country to create a center focused on the topics that now make headlines every day.
“We are making progress in important areas like genetics, artificial intelligence, the human brain, and alternate forms of transportation and energy,” Marchant said. “These are critical to deal with the types of challenges our world is facing: as individuals, as a country and as a as a planet. And we really need more, and better, food. We need more, and better, security. We need all these different things that science and technology is helping us achieve. On the other hand, science and technology are raising issues, things like privacy, equality and fairness that have to be addressed to allow science to move forward. And I think this time is unique with respect to the urgency of both of those dimensions, both the need for science but also the types of profound societal issues that science is raising.”
Marchant says lawyers and law schools have a big role to play in the governance of science and technology. And that requires understanding it.
“When I started out as a lawyer 30 years ago, there wasn't a lot of interaction between law and science — it was pretty limited,” he said. “Now it’s just absolutely massive. There are so many different ways the two fields interact, and it’s really important for lawyers to be knowledgeable about both the substance and the process of science, so they can help it move forward but also make sure it moves forward responsibly.”
Another unintended consequence of technological innovation has been the spread of misinformation, with the internet and social media fueling the flames. That has widened political divides and bolstered conspiracy theories undermining the most basic scientific truths.
“It is an era when science is under attack,” Marchant said. “It’s ironic, because never before has science been more important to our well-being, and to our national competitiveness and security. And yet, more and more people are skeptical. Whether it’s vaccines, or GMOs or climate change, you just see more and more people doubting science.”
That heightens the importance of organizations such as the AAAS, he said.
“The AAAS is really important to both maintain the credibility as well as the responsibility of science,” Marchant said. “I think scientists recognize that they have a duty to act responsibly, it’s not ‘anything goes.’ So the AAAS helps promote science and increase its credibility, but also ensures that it is acting responsibly.”
And some of those responsibilities — defending science, explaining science and countering misinformation — extends to individual scientists as well.
“Scientists are coming to the realization that they can’t just stay in their labs and let the rest of the world discuss these issues,” Marchant said. “They have a responsibility to engage with the public, to explain the science. They also have to have the humility to recognize that there's a role for the public in deciding these controversial issues.”
And scientists need to respond to public concerns, regardless of the merits.
“It’s sort of a two-way street,” Marchant said. “Scientists have to be proactive and communicate what their science is. But they also have to be receptive to the public’s concerns. If those concerns are based on misinformation, scientists need to help to correct that. But if those concerns are based on legitimate fears and ethical worries about technology and science, scientists have to be aware of that and take it into account in what they do in the lab.”