Move on safely with synthetic biology

Move on safely with synthetic biology

In the Trend Analysis Biotechnology 2016, three expert bodies recently advised the Dutch government to take a step back in attempting to regulate synthetic biology and other modern biotechnology. In the light of this, Dick Jung of the ministry of Infrastructure and Environment shared his policy maker’s dilemma’s with the participants in the meeting “Move on safely with synthetic biology” (https://www.rathenau.nl/nl/agenda/veilig-verder-met-synthetische-biologie) organised by the National Institute for Public Health and Environment (RIVM, http://www.rivm.nl/en/Topics/S/Synthetic_biology) and the Rathenau Institute on 20 September. The main questions were: How can we promote biosafety in cooperation with stakeholders? How can we harvest the promises of modern biotechnology for society and the economy? How to consider public views in society? He preferred to limit the responsibility of the government to the innovation and regulatory system, leaving the responsibility for individual products along the value chain from research via manufacturing and use up until waste processing to the industry, research and civil society. Subsequently, five Dutch iGEM teams presented their projects for this year’s global iGEM competition (http://igem.org/Main_Page). They explained how they integrated biosafety and biosecurity, initially because they were told to do that by the iGEM organisers. Soon, they discovered how interesting and challenging these issues were. In their turn, other participants got inspired by the refreshing approach taken by the iGEM teams.

Philosopher Sabine Roeser of the TU Delft presented her views on innovative ways to reflect on emotions regarding new technologies, and the possible role of art in stakeholder and public dialogue with scientists. Dick Jung had difficulties imagining how this could be stimulated through public research funding policies.

The programme continued in break-out sessions analysing safety and security issues along the value chain of five earlier iGEM projects, identifying who should be held responsible for which aspects, and what safer by design could mean in each case. This gave a lot of food for thought, nicely summarised in a wall-size drawing by two participating artists. The discussion is clearly to be continued.

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