Synthetic Biology at S.NET 2014

Synthetic Biology at S.NET 2014

From 21-24 September 2014, the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology hosted the 6th Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies (S.NET). On the 23rd of September a panel discussion was organized by the SYNENERGENE project. The aim of the panel discussion was to consider and assess the societal and ethical dimensions of synthetic biology from a multidisciplinary and multi-stakeholder perspective. The panel brought together experts from various backgrounds, namely Ineke Malsch (independent consultant), Malthe Borch (DIY biologist and independent scientist), Alexander Bogner (ITA, Vienna), Harald König (ITAS), and Rüdiger Stegemann (Friends of the Earth/BUND). The panel was chaired by Steffen Albrecht (ITAS).

Each of the experts reflected on recent developments in the field of synthetic biology and its societal and ethical implications. Synthetic biology was introduced to the market before society could “take a closer look” and engage with this technology, Stegemann commented as he started the discussion. König noted that the level of public awareness of synthetic biology was still low. In this context the SYNENERGENE project aims to foster public dialog in the field of synthetic biology. König also mentioned the role of technology assessment in this field: “Technology assessment gave synthetic biology an ethical touch.” Bogner discussed the challenges posed to technology assessment by synthetic biology. First of all, technology assessment experienced a “deliberative turn”, becoming more interactive. Secondly, concrete applications of synthetic biology are currently difficult to define and there are hardly any products on the market. Thus, according to Bogner, the “subject is missing” and technology assessment has to cope with the fact that any framing of the topic will influence and potentially determine the debate about the technology. Borch highlighted the lack of linguistic reflection in the debate about synthetic biology and an attempt to “restyle” the field of genetic engineering. In his view, “synthetic biology” is just a new term for genetic engineering. Technically, he noted, exists no difference between these two fields. Malsch emphasized that each citizen should take responsibility for her or his own life and for the life of others. The role of institutions in this process is to support and to enable persons to do this, as well as to participate in the public dialog on the technology.

Afterwards, the floor was opened for the Q&A session. Participants questioned what the ways were to interest and involve the lay public in the discussion on societal and ethical implications of synthetic biology. It was stressed that clear goals had to be set, and that the lay public should have an understanding of what is expected as an outcome of public engagement in such debate. The image of a science fiction technology might keep people off from taking an interest in synthetic biology. As a consequence, technology assessment should be sensitive about its role in the discourse.

The issue of power and the role of the public in decision making were also discussed. One has to consider that public dialog by a public with no decision-making power would likely lead to frustration among the participants.

Participants also enquired whether the scientists reflect on what they are doing and their research. In particular, concerns were expressed regarding the open access to the new technology through DIY biology and bio-hacking. While some participants said that open access helped to get various societal actors involved, others pointed out the possible risks associated with such access. In this context the questions of biosecurity and biosafety were discussed.

SYNENERGENE activities at S.NET 2014 also included a workshop on biohacking in which Ana Delgado and Nora Vaage (University of Bergen, Norway), Rüdiger Trojok (a DIY biologist and ITAS researcher) and Malthe Borch offered hands-on activities and addressed the problem of antibiotic resistance from a DIY and citizen science perspective with the participants.

Given that also a significant number of conference presentations dealt with synthetic biology, it is fair to say that discourse on this field of research and development played an important role at S.NET 2014. The discussions benefited from the broad disciplinary diversity of S.NET and the conference participants’ large interest in synthetic biology and DIY biology.