Synthetic Collaborations and Experimental Human Science

This review of Dr. Paul Rabinow’s new book appeared on Biopolitical Times

Synthetic Collaborations and Experimental Human Science, by Daniel Sharp

Through what modes of engagement might the human sciences and the life sciences achieve a productive, collaborative relationship? The question might sound theoretical, but it isn’t- at least not necessarily. Answering it is an eminently practical task, one that requires empirical and experimental work. And the potential consequences have enormous implications for who gets to imagine, write, and construct the biotechnological future.

Human scientists – ethicists, philosophers, anthropologists and the like – have been asking this question since the dawn of theHuman Genome Project, whose Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ELSI) component constituted the “largest ethics project in human history.” But if wide consensus exists that we’ve entered a “post-genomic era,” wherein the life sciences are being refashioned in novel ways, a new model for how human scientists interface with bioscientists seems called for.

Or, at least, so UC Berkeley anthropologist Paul Rabinow and Gaymon Bennett, UC Berkeley Anthropology PhD and Senior Research Fellow at Center for Biological Futures, argue in their new book, Designing Human Practices: An Experiment with Synthetic Biology.

In 2006, Rabinow and Bennet were charged by the National Science Foundation (NSF) with the task of designing a new, post-ELSI mode of interfacing with the life sciences at the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC), a UC Berkeley-led lab headed by Jay Keasling.Designing Human Practices chronicles their work at SynBERC, persuasively outlines the critical limitations of current modes of interfacing with the life sciences, and outlines the core conceptual equipment they developed for thinking about synthetic biology (you can find out more about their work hereand here).

The results of this experiment, both at the conceptual and the practical level, are of immense importance for anyone interested in the life sciences generally, and synthetic biology in particular.

Conceptually, Rabinow and Bennett’s account of why a “human practices” approach to synthetic biology is needed is quite convincing. The ELSI project, Rabinow and Bennett argue, operated essentially independently and downstream of the actual scientific research going on in the lab and of institutional and funding arrangements that form the context in which scientific work occurs. While useful for other problems, such an approach is, by itself at least, not adequate to grapple with synthetic biology.

Synthetic biology doesn’t just raise down-stream “social consequences”; it is rife with upstream ramifications that affect the way the context of synthetic biology research is – or should be – structured. Emerging in the wake of theBayh-Dole act, which mandated the potential for commercialization of all government-funded projects, synthetic biology has become a large-scale commercial enterprise, rather than a neutral project of scientific inquiry. This has enormous consequences for what research is conducted, who profits from it, and what sorts of risks ensue, and remains an issue that surpasses the consequences of a particular technology.

Furthermore, as an emergent field, synthetic biology presents emergent risks, which are not so easily foreseeable and manageable ahead of time. Simply listing risks and experiments of concern, therefore, won’t cut it; more robust and preparatory models of governance are called for concerning issues like biosecurity, biosafety, and the general promotion of human flourishing.

More practically, Rabinow and Bennett’s analysis is worrying on a different level. Throughout the course of their attempts to collaborate with synthetic biologists, the authors’ concerns about the field were met with a mixture of dismissal, disinterest, and, at times, outright hostility. The book details these blockages to collaborative practice rather extensively, culminating in the mysterious and largely unexplained removal of Rabinow as the head of the human practices through at SynBERC. In an earlier New York Times article, Rabinow lamented the SynBERC scientists’ indifference towards ”responsibility to larger society, which is funding them, by entrusting them to manipulate life.”

In that article, Rabinow noted:

“It had begun to worry me how profoundly irresponsible these guys are…There are possibilities of all kinds of nefarious things happening. There is no reason that someone couldn’t modify a virus; you could release it on an airplane or subway, and it could have profound terror effects.”

This is not just a problem concerning a few negligent scientists; it’s a problem concerning the way the field of synthetic biology is structured, the types of demands and restrictions its institutional venues place upon researchers, and the way the potential benefits of the field are envisioned and narrated.

In short, Bennett and Rabinow conclude:

“There is every reason to be concerned about the ramifications of developing areas of the life sciences such as synthetic biology.”

Other prominent social scientistsNGO analysts, and biological scientists have echoed this resounding message of concern, voiced from a variety of different perspectives. Relatedly, a number of social scientists, who work on synthetic biology in the UK and elsewhere, released a discussion document, “Towards a Manifesto for Experimental Collaborations between Social and Natural Scientists,” that strongly supports the call for new modes of collaboration between the human sciences and the natural sciences. Let’s hope the discussion here continues to build.