As the race to build life from scratch pushes on, hyperbole drowns out nuanced discussion. We need more wide-ranging dialogue.
EXCITING but terrifying. Powerful but scary. This is what some say about the emerging field of synthetic biology. Not surprising, perhaps, for an initiative that aims to "create life from scratch", to "make life better" and to "make biology easier to engineer".
The goals of synthetic biology are certainly ambitious: to produce a toolbox of standard biological parts with well-characterised functions that can be put together in combinations that may not exist in nature in order to perform human-designed functions outside the laboratory. Some hope to make the parts and the knowledge of how to assemble them accessible to all. The overall aim is to make the engineering of biology a routine process that can be put to use in many industries, with no need for highly specialised skills.
Most ethical, policy and media discussions about synthetic biology start from the assumption that these aims have already been achieved: that biology has become easy to engineer for whatever ends we choose, that the toolbox is available to any student or potential terrorist, that dangerous organisms and powerful bioweapons are easy to make, and that no effective regulation is possible. The ability of synthetic biologists to overcome serious scientific and technological challenges is taken for granted, and the economic, legal, social and political conditions for the uptake of these technologies are ignored.
Commentators instead focus on potential reckless use or misuse, overestimate the pathogenic possibilities, and worry about deep questions such as: "Do we have the right to play God?". These worries are the flip side of grand claims about synthetic biology's imminent ability to solve challenges in health, environment and energy. Utopias and dystopias seem to be the only scenarios possible.
This way of framing discussions is unhelpful. It is an example of "speculative ethics" that distracts us from less exciting but more pressing questions. What are synthetic biologists actually doing? How easy, or difficult, is it proving? What applications are they realistically going to develop in the short to medium term? What is their intended purpose, and to what extent could these contribute to the public good?
How, then, to proceed? Synthetic biologists have been impressively open to collaborations with the social sciences, law, arts and humanities, and open to debates with critical groups. In the UK, for example, social scientists have been participating in synthetic biology research programmes from the outset.
We are engaged in such partnerships and work closely with synthetic biologists so that together we can better understand the promises and challenges. We aim to help them reflect on why they are doing what they are doing, and to encourage them to open up such reflections to people outside their labs. In so doing, we try to avoid the pitfalls of speculative ethics and - perhaps idealistically - influence the kind of synthetic biology that is developed.
Science is creative, exciting and future-oriented and most synthetic biologists, like most people, do want to "make life better". But this means different things to different people, and even among synthetic biologists there are different views about what research is most valuable and which directions should be pursued.
As "embedded" social scientists, we routinely witness fascinating, nuanced discussions among synthetic biologists that acknowledge the complexities and uncertainties involved in their research. Sadly, these often disappear when synthetic biologists present their work in official public dialogues - or to journalists.
It is often left up to the most vocal critics of new technologies to articulate the complexities in public, and this is also the case for synthetic biology. When a number of NGOs led by opponents of genetic technology issued a declaration entitled The Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology this year, most of the discussion focused on their call for a limited moratorium. Yet much of the document in fact focused on the debatable desirability of the goals of synthetic biology, and on the need to acknowledge the complexities and uncertainties involved in designing novel living organisms - issues which concern many of those working in synthetic biology and which can and should be the subject of open debate.
Discussions about the inherent complexities and uncertainties, and about desirable futures, should be opened up to a whole range of social groups, not least those who have anxieties and criticisms. This might take us beyond the limits of most previous public-engagement exercises, and it could help ensure a more democratic process in which different visions of what is desirable are debated before particular ones become entrenched and hard to modify.
Such conversations should also help move the discussion beyond speculation about utopias and dystopias, by recognising that the prospects for synthetic biology are likely to be both less sensational and less forbidding than is generally acknowledged.
A meeting run by the science and engineering academies of the UK, US and China that will take place in Washington DC next week aims to assess the prospects for synthetic biology, and the concerns about its potential, by bringing together natural scientists, social scientists, artists, regulators, science funders and critical NGOs. Let's hope that this is a key moment in developing the kind of dialogue that is essential if the potential of synthetic biology is to be realised.
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