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Pioneering, Activist Geneticist Is Edinburgh Medal Winner


By edg - Posted on 10 February 2009

An American geneticist who led the team that first isolated a gene from the chromosome of a living organism, a major breakthrough in the understanding of the processes of life, will be awarded the 21st Edinburgh Medal at the Edinburgh International Science Festival this year.

Professor Jon Beckwith, the American Cancer Society Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics of Harvard Medical School, will be awarded his Edinburgh Medal at a ceremony on Tuesday 7th April 2009 during the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

As well as his pioneering work, Beckwith has been a prominent speaker on the ethics of genetics. When announcing its breakthrough in 1969, the team also warned of the danger that it might lead to discrimination and the genetic engineering of human beings, issues that he will cover in his address entitled "The Persistent Influence of Failed Scientific Ideas."

Beckwith embarked upon a double career - a continuing one in research and a new one of social activism in science. He has been actively involved in some of the major controversies in genetics in the last 30 years, and has a unique and deep perspective on some of these key issues, such as isolating the XYY gene for homosexuality.

Beckwith has campaigned for these issues to be the subject of wide discussion by scientists, technologists and the general public, pointing out that science can get twisted to serve social ends that are oppressive to less privileged groups in society.

A radical, he has actively supported the Black Panther group and spoken out against the fact that some scientists have supported arguments for the genetic inferiority of certain ethnic and racial groups, and ascribed social ills such as crime and poverty to the genes of individuals or groups, rather than to environmental and cultural sources.

"He is a man that has not only done some truly ground breaking science but has campaigned and agitated for the outcomes of science to be used sensitively and without prejudice in society," said Dr Simon Gage, Director of the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

Beckwith distilled his professional experience and personal ideas in his memoir Making Genes, Making Waves. In the late 1950's, Beckwith was a graduate student at Harvard University in Biochemical Sciences, the programme in which James Watson was a professor. He is co-editor of The Double-Edged Helix, social implications of Genetics in a Diverse Society.

The Edinburgh Medal is given each year to men and women of science and technology whose professional achievements are judged to have made a significant contribution to the understanding and well-being of humanity.

The activist professor said the recognition of the importance of social involvement by scientists made him "particularly happy" as well as "the impressive list of previous recipients of the Medal with whom I am proud to be associated."

Edinburgh Medal Address

Professor Beckwith's Medal Address "The Persistent Influence of Failed Scientific Ideas" promises to be one of the highlights of the packed programme of talks and debates at this year's Science Festival.

The talk will examine the "criminal chromosome", "male math gene" and "gene for intelligence" - all examples of popular myths that arose out of the publication of scientific papers.

Despite being shown to be wrong, these scientific myths influenced social policy, affected people's lives and have had extraordinarily long shelf-lives. How do such failed scientific ideas arise, attract attention and persist? What can be done to prevent or dispel scientific myths?

Previous Edinburgh Medal Winners

The first Edinburgh Medallist, in 1989, was the theoretical physicist and Nobel Prize winner Abdus Salam.

Of the subsequent nineteen Medallists three have gone on to be awarded the Nobel Prize.

1989 Professor Abdus Salam
1990 Professor Stephen J Gould
1991 Professor Jane Goodall
1992 Professor Heinz Wolff
1993 Professor Wangari Maathai
1994 Professor Manuel Pattarroyo
1995 Sir John Crofton
1996 Professor Richard Levins
1997 Professor Amartya Sen
1998 Sir David Attenborough
1999 Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell
2000 Professor Lynn Margulis
2001 Sir John Sulston
2002 Lise Kingo
2003 Professor Wang Sung
2004 Professor Stephen Rose
2005 Professor Colin Blakemore
2006 Professor James Lovelock
2007 Dr Richard Horton
2008 Professor Chris Rapley CBE