Deliberating Synthetic Biology…help wanted!

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Serious reflection on Research and Responsible Innovation (RRI) is, let’s face it, a pretty tricky thing for scientific researchers to engage in. As I write this I’m also attending a conference on public engagement (PE) as part of RRI within the context of Horizon2020 – even that is a bit of a mouthful and a mindful. One of the first ideas presented at the conference was that there is a “crisis of European scientific institutions.” What does this mean? To put it in the language used by the representative of the European Commission’s DG Research and Innovation, it means that while European researchers are producing top quality science they are less successful at turning science into innovation that addresses societal needs. The concern at policy level is that the, at least perceived, gap between societal needs and researchers is feeding a trust deficit or a trust gap between academic research and various public(s), stakeholder groups and civil society actors. Governments, as the main funders of research have to try to mediate this gap in their push to translate research into innovation and subsequently growth or other socially desirable outcomes. As a symptom of this, there is concern among scientists that the demands to oversell research in order to attract funding are further eroding public confidence in the relevance and indeed value of scientific research. This rather pessimistic picture should be seen against a slightly brighter background. Public consultation exercises show that academic researchers remain generally trusted. Where consternation lies is often at the nexus of government, industry and research, which is precisely where the strongest efforts are being made to turn science into innovation based growth in the economy.

Against this background three occasionally incongruent partners (BBSRC, Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland and Forum for the Future) have come together to develop the Synthetic Biology Deliberation Aid. The initiative for this collaboration came interestingly not from the public side (BBSRC or FOE), but out of work that Forum for the Future was doing with the commercial sector, namely Ecover, who were embroiled in their own Synthetic Biology/Public Engagement controversy.

Friends of the Earth (EWNI) and BBSRC are not, at least to the uninformed observer, the most likely of partners. Friends of the Earth’s US affiliate has made a strong statement about Synthetic Biology, urging a moratorium. BBSRC is (together with the EPSRC) the major funder of Synthetic Biology research in the UK (disclosure: BrisSynBio is funded by BBSRC).

I asked both Mike Childs from Friends of the Earth EWNI and Patrick Middleton from the BBSRC about this potential conflict of views. Their responses were illuminating.

Friends of the Earth is a federal organisation, explained Childs. Different national or regional federations can have different positions, often because of differing contexts. While FOE USA had taken up a strong position in favour of a moratorium, given weak regulatory frameworks in the USA, FOE EWNI was more comfortable assessing technologies grouped under the umbrella of “synthetic biology” on a case by case approach. This pragmatism was at least to some extent made possible by stricter existing European rules about the release of GMOs, regulations which currently also apply, where relevant to synthetic biology.

On the part of BBSRC, Middleton explained that it was important, where possible, to work together and dialogue with significant civil society actors like FOE, so that BBSRC can foster, and be part of, a broad dialogue about the place of research and technology in society. As I see it this ties into avoiding precisely the kind of “crisis of scientific institutions” that I mentioned at the beginning. This kind of cross-border work sits in a broader context, for instance the responsible research and innovation agenda within large-scale UK and European science funding programmes – including the joint BBSRC/EPSRC funded Synthetic Biology centres – and BBSRC’s own commitment to openness and its strategy which explicitly values diverse viewpoints.

So what about the Deliberation Aid itself? Could the child of these strange bedfellows end up anything but unloved and confused as to its identity and purpose in the world?

To the contrary, the document is coherent and clear. As the helpful diagram on page 3 indicates, the Deliberation Aid aims to get, not just researchers, but everyone working somewhere within “innovation processes”, to think broadly about the aims and consequences of their work. In order assist with this reflection, the Deliberation Aid poses 14 deliberative questions to guide the user. These questions cover the full scope of the R&D cycle, from the first research questions to eventual ownership and governance questions. Ensconced in the Deliberation Aid is a set or propositions that are shared by many when it comes to RRI.

Responsibility does not just come at the end of the research process, or when trying to “valorise” research by transforming it into innovation, it should be present from the point of framing a research question all the way through to the possible outcome of bringing a product to market. In this context Public Engagement is about more than social acceptance: simply talking at people to convince them of the virtue of allowing this or that technology to be used, released, sold, etc. has not worked. Instead, public involvement in the value orientation of technological development should be understood as part of the democratic legitimization of R&D itself. Technologies create potential futures, citizens must have their say on what on what potential futures are being created.

With this in mind, the Deliberation Aid asks users to consider not only how they think about the work that they are engaging in, but a diverse range of perspectives on synthetic biology, i.e. to think about what other people might be thinking about synthetic biology and to think about why they might be thinking that way. Don’t know anyone who thinks differently to you, or studiously avoid talking to such people? Not to worry, the Deliberation Aid offers a set of “personas” that can be used as examples (and only that). These are not real people, but they are based on what real people have said during such public consultation exercises as the 2010 Synthetic Biology Dialogue. The challenge here is not just to consider the views of others, but  to be open minded about perspectives that many scientifically minded people might find incommensurable with their own and having “Empathy” with them. The Deliberation Aid tells its user that all the perspectives are equally valid. This may be a hard pill to swallow, especially when some of these positions include ideas like “nature knows best” and “everything happens for a reason.”

I asked Mike Childs what empathy might mean in the context of ideas that are incompatible with the scientific picture of the world. Empathy in this context didn’t necessarily mean some kind of vicarious agreement or assent to these kind of positions, but serious consideration of where they came from and what they mean in terms of synthetic biology. In other words, those involved at the research end of synthetic biology needed to understand how constellations of concerns, anxieties and interests could feed into forming positions that it might on the surface seem impossible to engage with, but that harbor within them other, perhaps very legitimate concerns, below the surface – so to speak.

In the coming months we’ll be working more closely with the Synthetic Biology Deliberation Aid to see where it helps, where it could use more work, and where the Deliberation Aid opens onto broader and tougher ethical and political questions.

Note: thanks to Anna Warrington from Forum for the Future for an initial and very helpful discussion about the Deliberation Aid.

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