Don’t shut the door on the synthetic biology debate

A panel of world scientists want to talk to us about synthetic biology. But it’s not clear what we’re allowed to discuss

by Jack Stilgoe

Originally published by the Guardian on May 8, 2014.

The Inter-Academy Panel, a network of the world’s science academies including our own Royal Society, today issued a statement on synthetic biology. A few years ago, biologists in the higher branches of the Royal Society would claim that SynBio didn’t merit attention – it was seen as either rebranded molecular biology or messy, dysfunctional engineering. Now, these institutions have woken up to its novelty not because of the science, but because of a set of concerns about regulation. The journal nature has seen fit to grant it a special issue this week.

SynBio has always skated along what Drew Endy calls the “half-pipe of doom”, between a controlled biological utopia and an exploding biological disaster. Its enthusiasts, Endy included, make grand claims for the power of engineered biological machines and parts, bespoke genomes and xenonucleic acid (xDNA) to both create and solve major problems. The reality is likely to be more mundane, but the untold hype and terror have been allowed to shape the debate.

The academies’ statement, and its accompanying comment piece in Nature (probably paywalled, sorry), adopt a familiar stance, albeit with some progressive nods and winks. The aim is to “realise the potential” of SynBio, and the identified barrier to this is a public concern about its risks to health and the environment. Volker ter Meulen is clear that it is “time to settle the synthetic controversy” so that the science can advance in peace. The statement offers some tips for “good governance” and much of it is good. There is an admission of profound uncertainty, the need for responsible science and innovation, international oversight and the clarification (although it is not clear in whose minds – scientists or non-scientists) of “ethical and social concerns”. The IAP argues that a moratorium on SynBio isn’t warranted. But theirs is a statement inching towards the democratisation of risk, with an appreciation that scientists alone can’t settle such questions.

My question is why we, the public, are shut out of the conversation about benefits. “Realising the potential” of SynBio is talked about as though that potential is pre-ordained. It isn’t. SynBio will become what scientists, innovators, users, regulators and others make of it. It could be used to create brilliant, emancipatory, subversive, public-value innovation, or it could bolster existing power structures. The direction will depend on who is involved, what they value, what research gets done, how intellectual property (IP) is arranged and more. To their credit, synthetic biologists have been leading a debate about IP and open-source science ever since the field was created. But it remains to be seen whether this is just talk or a real innovation in innovation.

The synthetic biologists must however recognise that not everyone will share their view of a desirable future. The IAP points to a conference of synthetic biologists and conservation biologists in Cambridge last year (write up here (pdf)). I was invited along to talk about responsible innovation, so I can attest to the strangeness of the interaction. The conservation biologists, carrying a surfeit of problems as ecosystems crumble around the world, were taken aback by the abundant solutions promised by the synthetic biologists. Such interactions, as this week’s Nature editorial argues, are difficult but valuable. Responsible science and innovation does not just mean sorting out the risks. It also means a democratic discussion of the possibilities of progress. We should not try to “settle the synthetic controversy” as ter Meulen wants us to. We should keep talking and see how the discussions change as the science moves.