Synthetic Biology public dialogue - introduction

Supplementary content information

Welcome and introduction from Professor Lord Winston, followed by a presentation from Stephen Axford, Head of Science in Society Department of Business Innovation and Skills (now the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy [BEIS]) on the importance of dialogue for policy making.

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Professor Lord Robert Winston

First of all let me welcome you all to this launch of the public dialogue on synthetic biology and may I just say how grateful we are particularly to the members of the public who took part, who of course are absolutely essential to the whole process. You’re not all here, but some of you are just getting here now which is very good.  I should say that this is really the first opportunity to hear findings of what is the UK’s largest ever public dialogue on synthetic biology and the Research Councils are going to be considering how we should respond to and address the findings of the dialogue process.

I guess, as representing EPSRC I’ll be somewhat involved in our response from the EPSRC Societal Issues Panel and I should also say that I think it is the general view that dialogue is useless, if decisions have already been taken about the product we have. It is very clear we haven’t taken decisions about synthetic biology and I think that is very important and I think the other issue of course with dialogue, is that there must be the best possible good quality information about the science behind it as well and what we also understand as far as we can with regard to the ethical and societal issues.

So that’s really the purpose of this whole process. We will be filming this event and it will be available both on the EPSRC website and the BBSRC website and perhaps at this stage I could just introduce the speakers very briefly.

Firstly on my left is Stephen Axford who is the head of the Science in Society Team at BIS , the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, and he is going to cover the issue from a government perspective and I think what I might do is introduce the speakers in order. So, I’ve said enough about dialogue and at the end of our process we hope that we will have a bit of a dialogue, giving you plenty of time to ask us, or rather the panel, questions. Stephen.

Stephen Axford – Head of Science and Society Team, BIS

Good afternoon everybody, thank you very much for that introduction and I should just begin with an apology from David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science, who was to have given this short note about the dialogue and the launch of the report, but regrettably has been called away to presumably more urgent business at Number 10.

To kick off with, I think we all recognise, of course that new technologies have the huge potential to drive economic growth and in the long-term will benefit all of us. I don’t think that point could be lost on any of us at a time when we are facing some of the hardest sort of financial challenges that the country has seen for many years. And if the UK is to make the most of the exciting research and technological advances from our world class scientists, it’s important that we actually know how those advances will impact on the public.

The government is fully committed to engaging with the public, to ensure that our role as policy-makers takes account of public views, that of course isn’t to say that the public makes decisions on behalf of government, but it does say that the government takes note of how the public will feel and think about an issue well in advance of the major decisions that need to be taken. We are very keen to ensure that policy-makers and scientists fully consider and address issues and concerns that the public might raise, particularly around what we might call contentious issues and I’m sure there have been enough of those in the past few decades. Synthetic biology, which I think for many of the public, will actually be a term they probably haven’t even heard of, represents a field of research in which the UK has a considerable expertise. And, we have taken, through this dialogue, the opportunity to address societies’ future needs in a carefully considered and measured way. The dialogue has been an invaluable opportunity for people to discuss what they think about synthetic biology, and certainly on behalf of government, even though they are part of government, we would like to thank EPSRC and BBSRC for being the leading activists in carrying out this dialogue and we are very pleased that this afternoon we also of course have David Delpy and Doug Kell here to talk to us. The BIS -funded ScienceWise Expert Resource Centre has provided a lot of support, (that’s its purpose) and advice for this dialogue and to make sure that it takes account of the experience and best practice in dialogue and it will continue to build up the capability to use this in future policy areas that may well be strongly dependant on science and technology.

It is also important to realise that we should carry out discussion with the public, early on in policy making and research processes. This ensures that the outcomes of the dialogue are able to influence policy before any key decisions are made and also has a parallel benefit, a complementary benefit that the public are able to gain an understanding of the technology and it’s potential rather earlier than if all the science is presented in one sort of Fait Accompli at the end of the process. So the dialogue in Synthetic biology has been a very good example of how this process should work and it of course has been carried out well ahead of the recent development that you will have heard about in the news from Craig Venter, on the first cell controlled biosynthetic genome. I’m sure of course this then in turn gives us a significant point that of course dialogue should in a sense never end because there will always be new developments and the need to keep on talking.

Synthetic biology, of course, could make a huge contribution to economic and technological challenges we face, but it’s also important that it’s developed responsibly. The results of the dialogue will feed into policy decisions across government, including funding, research priorities, as you will hear from the Research Councils, and regulation. Of course the technology is still in its infancy. It’s important there is continued dialogue between public, scientists and policy-makers to ensure that as this area evolves it reflects wider public concerns and aspirations. In dialogues like these it’s important to allow participants to discuss, not only the specific topic, but also the broader scientific and social context in which it’s placed and for us to help people understand the relationship between those. I hope that all of those who are responsible for developing or even implementing this technology will keep the results of this dialogue firmly in mind and ensure that synthetic biology in the UK is taken forward with the best scientific, ethical and social interests at its’ heart. Thank you.

[Sound of audience clapping]