Category: Ethics

Dan Sarewitz has a rather provocative commentary in Nature this morning, where he suggests that proposals to increase basic research may be good politics, but questionable policy. The headline alone is probably enough to get some science-advocates’ blood boiling, whether they go on to read the piece or not: “Double trouble? To throw cash at science is a mistake” does nothing if not throw down the gauntlet to an already sensitive science community. Beyond the provoking banner, Dan raises  serious if uncomfortable issues – there must come a point where investment in science is balanced within a much broader social context, and the consequences of not allocating funds elsewhere are weighed against the benefits of supporting research – especially blue skies research.  But reading the piece reminded me of an associated debate which seems to get rather less air time – the personal responsibility that comes with government research funding. It’s an inescapable fact that, for every dollar, pound or Euro that governments invest in research, someone, somewhere is getting less money to spend on what they think is important.  In some cases, re-allocations may have minor social consequences.  In others, reduced spending elsewhere in favor of science may be profound impacts on the lives of individuals – especially those at the margins of society.

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A guest blog by Hilary Sutcliffe, Director of MATTER, a UK think tank which explores how new technologies can work for us all. The other day, I wrote a piece on the implications of synthetic biology where I  suggested that we “need to place discussions on a science basis, and not get over-distracted by ethical hand-wringing.”  It was a bit of a provocative statement – intentionally so – so I was pleased to see Hilary Sutcliffe pick up on it in the comments and push back against the implication that the ethics of synbio might not be as important as some think.  Given the relevance of her comments, I thought they deserved their own guest blog – so here they are – AM. “Ethical hand-wringing”?  Hmm, I don’t think you were quite meaning this as I have interpreted it Andrew, but I have to disagree with your point in your Synthetic Biology Blog on the ethical hand-wringing, I think we should be distracting ourselves quite a lot with Ethical Hand-Wringing while the scientists are getting on with creating their new organisms, especially considering ‘what we understand is secondary to what we can do’, as you said. I was at the Royal Society’s Synthetic Biology Stakeholder meeting which was shown by BBC Newsnight last week, (my Mum and I spotted me fleetingly in the corner!) and this and other recent synbio events gave me many a déjà vu moment – had I accidentally gone to a nano meeting? There are many similarities between the development of genetic modification (GM) and nanotechnologies which can be learned in the development of synthetic biology.  Time is of the essence – GM and nano were pretty much already in the shops when we started to take action, but here perhaps we can get our act

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Given the recent surge in 2020science readers (thanks to Lon S. Cohen at Mashable), I thought it about time I did a short retrospective—a taster for the type of stuff you can expect to read here.  So here are five pieces from the past year that cover everything from nanotechnology to synthetic biology, and ethics to the trials of being on the scientific meeting circuit—all from the perspective of emerging technologies. Enjoy! Asbestos-like nanomaterials – should we be concerned? It seems that when the possible downsides of nanotechnology are broached, it doesn’t take long for the “A” word to surface.  But what is the truth—if any—behind comparisons between nanomaterials and asbestos?  From January 2009. . Nanotechnology—In bed with Madonna? How do you squeeze Madonna, John Kerry, nanotechnology and Elle magazine into the same blog?  With difficulty is the correct answer I think, but somehow they all managed to appear together in this piece from April 2008. . . Synthetic biology, ethics and the hacker culture. What the heck is synthetic biology, is “biopunk” a real word, and are the 21st century equivalents of computer hackers going to reconfigure life as we know it?  I can’t promise any easy answers, but hopefully this post from June 2008 helps set the scene. . Geoengineering: Does it need a dose of geoethics? We’ve all heard of bioethics, but if the earth can be treated like one massive complex organism, do we need the planetary equivalent of bioethics—“geoethics” perhaps?  From January 2009. . . Enough meetings already! Ever get jealous of the scientific jet-set, swanning between “prestigious” speaking engagements in exotic places?  Don’t bother—the reality is far from glamorous, as this post from May last year tries to capture.  Fortunately, there are occasional compensations, albeit in unlikely forms! .

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Looking back to chart a course to the future This coming lunchtime*, former New York Times columnist Denise Caruso will discuss the promise and pit-falls of synthetic biology with Center for American Progress senior fellow and former Washington Post science reporter Rick Weiss.  Given the track record of both participants, I’m anticipating a stimulating and spirited discussion, which will draw on Caruso’s just-published article on an overview and recommendations for anticipating and addressing emerging risks from synthetic biology. But rather than focus on Denise’s piece [which as you would expect from a talented writer, speaks quite eloquently enough for itself], I thought I would provide a slice of back-story to synthetic biology.  And to do this, I want to use a rather good paper published last year by Brian Yeh and Wendell Lim (of the University of California San Francisco)…

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With apologies to Arundhati Roi for “borrowing” the title of her moving book, what—if anything—has nanotechnology got to do with religion? Barnaby Feder of the New York Times takes on this issue in his latest posting to the Bits blog: “There may not be a lot of agreement among the world’s religions on exactly what constitutes humans “playing God,” but you never hear a preacher or rabbi suggesting such behavior is wise or laudable. So you would think they might have a lot to say about nanotechnology. After all, nanotech involves rearranging not just DNA and the other building blocks of life — already a source of controversy in biotechnology — but the very atoms and molecules that make up all matter. If that is not messing around in God’s closet, what is?” The big issue it seems is transhumanism—the use of existing and emerging technologies, including nanotechnology, to extend and change what it means to be human.  Will nanotechnology give us the ability to do what only God should?  Can we somehow thwart God’s plans, and take control of our own destiny?  Or is there nano-knowledge that should be forbidden?

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In July 2007, a specially convened task force of the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concluded that size does in fact matter (FDA 2007).  The focus of the task force was not on the importance of “largeness”, but rather on the technology of the unimaginably small—nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is the technology of manipulating matter at near-atomic levels; typically, but not exclusively, within the size range of 1 – 100 nanometers.  Working at this scale, it becomes possible to combine materials in ways and forms unimaginable more than a few decades ago.  Imagine the contrast between eighteenth century surgery and modern microsurgery, and you begin to get an idea of what this emerging technology offers. According to the FDA task force, “properties of a material relevant to the safety and (as applicable) effectiveness of FDA-regulated products might change repeatedly as size enters into or varies within the nanoscale range”. But as Professor James Moor and Professor John Wecker point out in the Spring 2007 edition of Medical Ethics [PDF, 805 KB], nanotechnology not only raises safety and regulatory issues, but ethical questions as well (Moor and Wecker 2007).

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2020 Science is the creation of Andrew Maynard - a Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan. Andrew spends his time obsessing over effective science communication; the responsible development and use of emerging technologies; and how understanding risk can help inform smart decisions.  

As well as writing a regular column for the journal Nature Nanotechnology, He posts regularly here at "2020 Science", and on Twitter as @2020science.  He also produces short, entertaining, and (hopefully) informative videos on understanding health risks on his YouTube channel Risk Bites

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