Geneticist lawyer welcomes new class of biotech law students to ASU

June 29, 2005

By Flinn Foundation

The head of the new Master of Laws (LLM) in Biotechnology and Genomics at the Arizona State University College of Law came to law via the lab bench.

“I had no idea I’d end up a lawyer,” says Gary Marchant, executive director of the Center for the Study of Law, Science, and Technology at ASU and the Lincoln Professor of Emerging Technologies, Law, and Ethics. Marchant, who grew up in a small logging town outside of Vancouver, Canada, says he got interested in science early on from his parents, who were both teachers in the local schools. He attended the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where he received his undergraduate diploma and Ph.D. in genetics.

But by that time, he had become aware that his interests lay outside the lab, particularly where science and social policy intersect in the growing field of genetics.

“I decided I did not want to spend my life counting fruit flies,” Marchant says.

So on a four-year post-doctoral fellowship to study science and technology policy at Harvard, Marchant finished his two-year Master of Public Policy degree and looked around for a way to spend the next two years, which he found in the form of a Harvard law degree.

“I sort of backed into law school,” he said. “I was always intimidated and ignorant about law, and knew it always played a prominent role in any issue I addressed. But I found that I immediately loved the field, and was attracted by both its rationality and its incorporation of public policy, science, and ethics.”

Today, ASU’s new LLM program, housed in Center for the Study of Law, Science, and Technology, aims squarely at the nexus of those issues. Marchant says they have enrolled 13 students in the one-year master’s program for the fall semester. A J.D. degree is a prerequisite for the program, which Marchant says has attracted wide national and international interest from career lawyers and judges who “see the emerging importance of genetics to many areas of the law.”

Marchant is also wrapping up a two-year, $500,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the legal impact of the Human Genome Project, and how it could and should influence environmental regulation. The grant team includes Andrew Askland of ASU, Richard Sharp of the Baylor College of Medicine, and Jamie Grodsky from the University of Minnesota Law School.

I asked Marchant about the popularity of the new biotech law program, the progress of his grant, and what he thinks scientists’ roles in the public sphere


There is obviously a real demand for this biotech law program. For such a litigious nation as the U.S., why do you think it has not been done anywhere else yet?

One reason is that most law schools lack the trained faculty to have a specialized program in biotechnology/genomics law. Most lawyers out in the field today had no opportunity to learn about genetics and biotech when they went to law school, and there is only a scattering of law professors around the nation with expertise in this area. We are unique and fortunate to have seven or eight law professors with specialized expertise in genetics and the law here at ASU.

How is work progressing on your NIH Human Genome grant?

The grant wraps up in August; we’re putting together a book that consists of almost thirty chapters on different aspects of toxicogenomics and the use of genomics in environmental policy with contributing experts in law, science, philosophy, government, and ethics who participated in a very successful workshop we held at ASU in January.

Two of your college towns, Boston and Vancouver, are such different places, as I imagine are the academic institutions themselves. What was the most surprising or intriguing contrast between UBC and Harvard?

In my first weeks at Harvard, I attended a public lecture by legendary economist John Kenneth Galbraith, and was shocked that only about a dozen people attended. Such prominent speakers at Harvard were an everyday occurrence, whereas a speaker of that stature would have been a much bigger deal at UBC and would likely have drawn an audience in the hundreds. Of course, at Harvard I missed the mountains, forests, and ocean that surround the UBC campus.

You were the editor of the “Harvard Environmental Law Review,” and much of your teaching and research has been focused on environmental law, especially on risk assessment. Do you think that the public and political focus in Arizona on genomics and biotech may be diverting attention from more traditional ‘environmental’ issues such as water, energy, conservation, biodiversity, and climate change?

Environmental issues are certainly important, especially here in Arizona. There is always a tendency for the “next big thing” such as genomics to get a disproportionate amount of attention relative to more established, but still very important, subjects such as the environment, information technology, physics, etc. I think we’re seeing that again with the newest sensation of nanotechnology.

But there are areas of convergence as well, where some exciting advancements are occurring. For instance, I’m most excited about the use of genomics and biotechnology to improve environmental and public health protection.

As both a science and a law professor, what do you make of the recent allegations that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency corrupted or grossly misinterpreted science in several conservation and climate change cases?

It is an unfortunate fact that science can rarely, if ever, provide certainty on any controversial issue involving risk or similar subjects. Uncertainty is inherent in the scientific enterprise. And where there is uncertainty, there will be the opportunity to exploit that uncertainty for partisan purposes. Every government does it to some extent, as does every advocacy organization. What we urgently need are respected, objective institutions that can provide credible and informed perspectives on what we do and do not know for the public, media, and policy-makers.

Do scientists have a responsibility to get in and get their hands dirty in public policy, or to stay on the sidelines as consultants? In other words, should we relocate the Ivory Tower to the public sphere, or tear it down?

I think the traditional model that scientists should stay out of the policy world is now obsolete. As [ASU President] Michael Crow articulates in the New American University model, scientists must take responsibility for their research and participate in the public dialogue on the implications of their work.

Do you think there is adequate bioethical dialogue surrounding Arizona’s recent genomics and biosciences endeavors? If not, how would you like to see that change?

I think one of the lessons to take from the GM [genetically modified] foods controversy is that it’s important to address the ethical, social, and legal aspects of a new technology up front, and not just as an afterthought. My sense is that scientific leaders at institutions such as the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) and the Biodesign Institute here at ASU are very aware and supportive of these issues. But the challenge is always to find appropriate venues and mechanisms to address them in a responsible and proactive way.

For more information:

The Center for the Study of Law, Science, and Technology