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 together a bit sooner.

Here are quick observations on my déjà vu moments and lessons from nano and GM that may apply.  This is not an exhaustive list, just my quick on-the-hoof thoughts in response to the limited information I have:

  • This is just an evolution of….. what’s all the fuss about? – ‘But it’s just an extension of GM’, ‘it’s just an extension of systems biology’, ‘it’s not actually anything really different’, ‘it’s an evolution of what we have been doing for years’.  Hello?!  Whether that is true or not from a scientific point of view, much like nano when you are close to it, that is not the point.  As the The Economist points out in its editorial this week, ‘…whatever the rational pleadings of physics and chemistry, there exists a sense that biology is different, is more than just the sum of atoms moving about and reacting with one another, is somehow infused with a divine spark, a vital essence’.  That has always been the line from nano scientists too, perhaps with even more validity. But to the lay person, or the sceptic, it looks dismissive and rather suspicious.  So though it is perhaps reasonable from a scientific point of view, I would suggest that synthetic biologists kill that ‘line of defence’, it won’t work and it never worked for nano either. Instead of calming fears, in fact it often has the opposite effect of raising further concern in the non-expert.
  • ‘But first we need a definition’: Aaaahhhhh, nnnnoooooo!  Guess what, there is no definition, and I had a big déjà vu moment here – the conversation was IDENTICAL to the many I have had about nano over the years!  Standards makers, regulators, synbiologists, whoever – get this sorted. This has been a very divisive issue for nano – some say deliberately engineered – so pleeeeese address this question as soon as possible.  I may be wrong, but there doesn’t seem to be a concerted international effort on this at the moment, there needs to be, now.  An idea – call up some of the nano people and find out how they did it (as slowly and tortuously as possible) and then do it differently!
  • Governancethis does seem to be considered of real importance and there is work going on worldwide on this, though it appears in academia, rather than a concerted international effort – though I may be wrong. Five Academies – sister/brother orgs to the Royal Society – are meeting soon to discuss synbio, and this will be top of the list.  Obviously we need to do much better with this than we have on nano. The Venter Institute/MIT/CSIS prepared a interesting paper on Options for Governance; in the UK, Imperial/LSE/BIOS have a Center for Synthetic Biology and Innovation group which is doing some work sponsored by the Royal Society which looks interesting; and there are other experts in universities across the world doing their own work. But the BIG lesson for me from nano, which, with the potential for serious ‘bioerrors and bioterrors’, is even more important for synbio, is to get an international effort underway, ASAP, coordinated by a group such as the UN or OECD.  I have a vision of a UN/World Economic Forum/World Social Forum joint effort.  How unlikely is that, but perhaps worth a try?  Our Responsible Nano Code was the right document, but the wrong process.  Too British (despite the fact that all our businesses on the Working Group were multinational).  A very credible international process is very important here!
  • The current regulation is fit for purpose, we don’t need any more.  This may actually be the case in this instance, but the time spent arguing about definitions with nano has slowed down the potential evaluation of the need for regulation and, some argue, given us some regulation which is not really fit for purpose. Again, an authoritative, multi-stakeholder process of regulatory evaluation needs to be underway now as part of the governance development process.
  • Get business and science working together from the start.  In nano there were and still are parallel discussions going on with businesses and scientists in separate silos.  We really need to do things differently for synbio.  It is at the application end where the health, safety and environment impacts and social and ethical issues really hit, and business and science need both need to understand and participate in this.  If the governance area gets done by the Science Academies alone, this is unlikely to happen.  We need to find ways of making those connections with business early and making them stick.
  • Ethical Hand-Wringing and public engagement. I have been encouraged by the calls on all sides for ethical debate, public engagement and what I think of as Ethical Hand-Wringing!  The ethical dilemmas in this are quite complicated, with vested interests on all sides and we need a serious commitment from governments, scientists and businesses to communicate clearly at all stages and engage all citizens in this discussion.  However, we do need more than the usual useful and interesting sets of focus groups reaching a few hundred people.  That is not really a debate on synthetic biology, it’s market research. Obviously synbioandme.org (yes I have bagged the domain) would be a start!  But I have come to the conclusion that we need to have mass communication and mass engagement if we are to allow citizens to understand and participate in this discussion.  This is tricky and we need to be much more innovative this time round.  And I don’t see much sign of that at the moment, though it is early days.  We made some inroads with nano, (fingers crossed for Nano&me being funded!) and the Dutch are doing a very interesting mass communication/engagement job on nano (check out the Nano Podium website).  Though of course as we are all broke, it won’t be happening anytime soon!
  • But what do we want it for – where’s the overarching vision? A participant at the RS meeting made a very important point, which for me is the really big question.  We in the UK do these Big Important Inquiries (e.g. the recent Bioengineering report) where the government explores the potential for a technology with experts from the field in question and lo and behold, they say it is really important and should be given lots more funding! But where is the top level independent vision and strategy which explores the UK’s approach to its big issues – energy, health, poverty, the economy, for example – and looks at which technologies could be used to solve which problems?  Synbio, nano, GM, irradiation, IT, nano/bio/info/cogno may or may not be solutions to some of our most pressing problems, but unless applied research funding, economic incentives and commercial R&D is looked at in the context of other solutions, including non-technical ones, we can’t really be confident that we have got the right solutions to the right problems.   In addition, this is the very best time and place to anchor the Ethical Hand-Wringing, it would make public debate mean something, influential and galvanise everyone – from scientists to businesses, NGOs to governments – to engage better about the benefits of their work and debate real issues which will be relevant now and in the future.

Other countries do it – this must be an important priority for the new UK government. We have time with synthetic biology to get this right, we just need to get going now.

This piece also appears on the MATTER blog

Hilary Sutcliffe