Artificial life: let the people decide
Artificial life: let the people decide
Tom Wakeford and Jackie Haq
New Scientist Magazine issue 2766, 23 June 2010
LAST month, Craig Venter and his team put synthetic biology centre stage when they created "artificial life". They stitched together a genome from small stretches of DNA and transplanted it into a cell, which then started replicating.
"Synthia" is an important advance. But, like claims that genetically modified crops would quickly feed the world, the hype over synthetic biology may tempt governments to divert scarce resources from technologies that are already proven. The claims for "synbio" include the possibility of generating organisms able to halt climate change by absorbing excess carbon. All in the name of a public effectively excluded from setting goals for research.
Over the past year, in a pilot project meant to begin to address this democratic deficit, the UK's Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) invited members of the public - drawn at random - to a series of workshops where they could quiz researchers about the technology.
We were two of a large number of expert advisers overseeing this dialogue since its inception, attending some focus groups, and talking to anonymised participants. With serious flaws emerging in the way the dialogue was commissioned and conducted, it is vital the lessons learned from this pilot are applied to the fuller dialogue that is due to begin later this year.
First, the entire process was undertaken using a commercial market-research approach rather than a public dialogue approach. Contrary to established good practice, the councils decided that the workshops should be held in private, saying it was too soon for any discussions to take place in public.
That's because, along with many scientists, the councils appear nervous of anything that risks providing spaces in which non-scientists' views, which they appear to consider ill-informed, can be heard. Scientists present at a workshop to design the process expressed a desire to avoid being caught unprepared by another MMR, referring to the public scare over a spurious link between autism and the triple measles, mumps and rubella vaccine given to children in the UK.
There is also a collective memory within the scientific establishment of the UK's public discussions of the genetic modification of crops - the "GM Nation?" debates in 2003. Science policy-makers have convinced themselves that their openness allowed the debate to be dominated by anti-science extremists, though researchers such as Alan Irwin of the Copenhagen Business School in Denmark, who studies the relationship between science and the public, provided evidence to the contrary.
In researchers' minds, the MMR and GM scares, and even the BSE disaster get lumped together as examples of the ignorant mob versus scientific truth. The problem is that in the cases of GM and BSE, the mob was partially correct. The risks of feeding cattle the brains of other cattle had not been accurately assessed, and GM foods were not a magic bullet to increase yields of smallholder farmers. In both cases, not only were official predictions flawed, but key experts were reluctant to be frank about the uncertainties and gaps in knowledge underlying their advice.
In 2005, as the next subject of public opposition looked to be nanotechnology, some of us felt we might have come up with a solution. Backed by three research councils, the UK government and Greenpeace, the Nanojury was one of the first "upstream" engagements, designed to allow people to shape the new science and thus be more likely to trust its regulation.
The jury raised a number of concerns about nanoparticles, which were echoed by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering. However, no effective regulations have been put in place, and multinationals continue to expose us to nanoparticles and to applications of the technology that have not yet been revealed.
After keeping the synbio dialogue in camera, the report, Synthetic Biology Dialogue, was launched two weeks ago. An accompanying press release claimed that the process showed "most people are supportive of the research" and just want it regulated properly. Yet our conversations with participants, and elements of the report itself, suggest this summary was both too simplistic and too emphatic.
In our view, the synbio focus groups did not have sufficient opportunity to discuss the extent to which big business decides the pathway major new technologies will take. The need for investors to make a return locks the rest of us into a particular path that becomes immune from public scrutiny.
The presence of oil giant BP on the board of the company Venter set up to exploit synthia, and the $600 million the company received from Exxon for synbio development suggest these firms are looking to use the technology to expand the fossil fuel industry. Most synbio investment comes from private corporations, making the research subject to commercial confidentiality, yet there is no evidence that these key aspects were covered by the focus groups.
We fear the upstream approach could have the same outcome in the synbio pilot dialogue as in nanotechnology. If its key failings are not addressed, the Venter model is likely to triumph and the future will be imposed through patented genes and products, with regulators and the public forced into a dangerous game of catch-up.
In the 21st century, democracies deserve real dialogue that allows us all to examine state and corporate agendas, and lets civil society voices set the terms of the debate. Synbio may or may not help us tackle the challenges facing the world, but if we do not effectively involve everyday people in its regulation, any benefits are likely to accrue to the already rich and powerful, at the expense of the rest of us.
Tom Wakeford and Jackie Haq are at the Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Centre, Newcastle University, UK