Synthetic Biology public dialogue - need for dialogues

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Professor David Delpy, EPSRC Chief Executive on why the Research Councils feel it is important carry out dialogues and why it was necessary to hold a dialogue in synthetic biology.

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Professor Lord Robert Winston

Dave Delpy is our next speaker, he is the CEO of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the EPSRC, and David is going to talk about the rationality for conducting this particular dialogue.

Professor David Delpy

Right, thank you Robert, I’ll try not to make it a monologue and I’ll try hopefully to keep to time.

Science cannot and it should not exist in a vacuum where the research is conducted remotely in academia oblivious to public perceptions. I firmly believe that the Research Councils and the researchers that we fund have an obligation to guard against the sort of public cynicism that could result from a perception that science is aloof and uncaring. As Robert has said already, the public have a right to say in what is done on their behalf and this is especially true and all the more important now that science is increasingly and inextricably embedded in matters of public policy contributing to major issues, such as climate change, energy, the ageing population, food security, crime prevention and national security.

There’s a presumption by some that the general public is always going to struggle to offer safe and meaningful advice on scientific issues, given the complex and the specialist nature of the subject and the intrinsic level of uncertainty. However, all my experiences of medical physicists talking to parents who, were suddenly faced with a premature baby on life support equipment which was enormously complex and confusing, is that in fact they are more than able to cope with this. I don’t share this view that the general public is going to struggle. I believe the public is more than able to answer questions that are put to it by the science community and indeed they may in fact point out important principles and questions that lie outside the direct remit of the Research Councils and the Research Councils’ terms of reference.

And of course the public will have a differing view to the scientists on uncertainty. While the public may advocate greater caution in some areas, I think this will not always be the case and in my experiences that we can imagine situations where the public would indeed be prepared and would encourage a higher threshold to be set for tolerable risk, because the potential benefits are perceived to be so much greater.

Opening up a strategic discussion to a public debate can extend and enrich the debate that we have and can introduce the general publics’ additional values, experiences and sensibilities and we do in fact have a duty to ensure that we do that.

It may be true to say that the general public don’t know a lot about the fine details of the science, but this surely is more of an argument for the scientists to engage in explaining the science and to listen to the concerns that are then raised as a result of that. The dialogue process itself has the great advantage that it is a learning experience from both sides and it provides a safe place in which to try to develop both a mutual trust and a mutual understanding.

The evaluation of dialogues has shown that with the right environment, public reflections are improved by direct interactions with the scientists, as we’ve heard and indeed in turn scientists’ own thinking is informed by the publics’ sophisticated thinking about key issues.

The public can be tremendously helpful in unpicking assumptions when ones developing science policy. It would be a mistake and a missed opportunity if we underestimate the publics’ ability to both contribute intelligently and with insight to such debates when the correct advice and access to the experts is made available.

We need to be mindful of the lessons from the past where failure to engage the public appropriately or sufficiently early has meant that issues have become polarised and misrepresented, as was classically the case with the GM debate.

However, this dialogue is not about trying to get the public on-board or conducting science by opinion poll, but its’ about establishing a genuine two-way dialogue. We are not, and I repeat, we are not seeking to get the public to some how direct research funding or to usurp the role of government or the Research Councils in that regard. And nor will this undermine the principle that the excellence of the science remains the paramount criterion by which we will fund research.

However, timely and properly conducted public dialogue can provide valuable intelligence which can only enhance the evidence base upon which sound and socially robust decisions about science are made.

There’s no doubt, that the area of synthetic biology which is still in its infancy, but I’m reminded as a relatively new grandparent, that babies don’t remain babies for very long, this is not going to be in its infancy for very long. But synthetic biology is still in its infancy, but it has huge potential and it will shape and dominate a wide range of the research areas that we fund into the future.

But it does have the potential to raise some major ethical and societal issues. EPSRC’s Societal Issues Panel, which is chaired by Robert, discussed the area of synthetic biology back in 2008 and there was a clear strong feeling that there should be an early public engagement, a very early public engagement and a real two-way dialogue before the Research Councils’ course was fixed.

It was also apparent that both BBSRC and EPSRC , as the major funders in this area, had a clear role in initiating this debate and it was for that reason that I wrote to Doug Kell to propose this joint venture, and as you’ve heard I was really already pushing against a door that was open because BBSRC had already themselves been thinking along these lines and indeed were leading the way in many respects by commissioning the Balmer and Martin report that you heard about earlier. And they had already initiated some useful and indeed much needed discussion about regulatory frameworks in this area.

I’m sure that Doug will agree that we see this just as the beginning of a process and the building of a strong base for an ongoing dialogue. I’m sure in questions and answers somebody is going to ask me, well what next? Well my answer to that is ‘well if we knew that we wouldn’t be engaged in this dialogue, we engaged in it because we need to work out what next’.

But this dialogue is the start of a process, its’ about opening up the debate and getting the issues themselves out in the open, indeed because synthetic biology is only emerging as a research area now, it provides us with a unique opportunity to engage the public at the outset in order to help us determine the future direction of what is a very important area of our basic research.

In reading through the report, and I re-read it again at the weekend, I was particularly interested to hear the views which we’ve just heard summarised, the views of the public about the need for scientists to take more responsibility in thinking through the societal implications of their work. This resonates with what we in EPSRC and what our Societal Issues Panel had raised, to us, and what we are trying to address in conjunction with that panel and we are considering ways that might encourage our researchers to think more widely about the consequences of their work.

The views that have been expressed by this public dialogue provide to us, actually, a welcome confirmation that this was the right approach and indeed it adds some additional imperative to the discussion that will be following at the Societal Issues Panel and in conjunction with BBSRC.

We will certainly be giving very careful thought to the messages that have come out from the dialogue and I do look forward to working closely with colleagues inBBSRC to try and develop a response that addresses the publics’ aspirations and their concerns.

Finally, as all the previous speakers have said, I would really like to thank all of those who have contributed to the dialogue especially the members of the public, some of whom are here and the scientists who made time from a very busy research agenda to participate in this. Special thanks of course go to BMRB, who conducted the exercise, and also to ScienceWise whose resources both in terms of expertise and funding and a wealth of expertise contributed so much to this process. I look forward to seeing how it develops over the rest of the summer. Thank you.

[Sound of audience clapping]