Synthetic Biology public dialogue - next steps

Supplementary content information

Professor Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive on what we are going to do next to ensure the report has influence on the Research Councils and more broadly.

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Professor Lord Robert Winston

Finally we are going to hear from Doug Kell, who is the CEO of the BBSRC, and he is going to just tell us about how we make sure that this report, which you’ve all got I hope, will influence the Research Councils’ thinking and where we go to next.

Professor Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive

Thanks very much indeed Robert. Well I can obviously add comparatively little as the last speaker, to what others have said about the value of our public engagement activities in general and in this particular synthetic biology dialogue, both the researchers and research funders, as well as the broader public.

I agree absolutely with Dave and we were of course very happy to respond to the suggestion that we participate in this process from the word go, following on as you’ve heard from the Balmer and Martin report. And it’s worth commenting that science is not an event but a process. The synthetic biology research agenda is set within the framework of activities that have been going on already for quite a long time, and the important thing then is to recognise what is going to happen to our dialogue as a result of this process.

It is very much the beginning, the average length of time for a new discovery in the science base to turn into say a commercial activity or something that has a policy impact, is often between ten and 20 years. Clearly then we are very much at the beginning of this process, not even in Churchill’s phrase, the end of the beginning.

Unsurprisingly, it is recognised that the British public are sophisticated and shrewd and they might perhaps be a little sceptical that we were merely doing this for effect to show that we had done the public dialogue and then it would be kicked into the long grass and that’s very much not the case. And a very obvious reason why not is the obvious enthusiasm that everyone had and retains for discussing this very topic. One example recently that came to me was when Venter published his paper on the rebooting, as he called it, of a bacteria cell. The amount of public interest as judged by the BBC website was absolutely massive, it was very much the story of the day and nine others went on television to talk about it in response to the very obvious interest that was there.

So, to this end let me thank everyone too, for the dialogue, who contributed to it and very much listening to the findings and very much recognising one of the chief findings of that the Research Councils must continue to do more than we already do, to ensure that the public is engaged and is determining what kind of activities are appropriate to Research Council funders and to ensure that the kind of science we fund is not in discord with societies aims and aspirations.

What we are going to be doing through the summer, both with EPSRC’s SIP panel and our own Bioscience in Society Panel and with the dialogue steering groups, is to digest the reports and the conclusions that have come from them and then develop our responses which will be quite wide ranging.

One particularly interesting finding which struck me was the one that was mentioned, that, overall researchers underestimated their individual contributions, while recognising that the field as a whole could have a massive contribution. This is quite unusual in a society in which normally one is expected to large up one’s contribution to show it’s possibly greater than it really is. And that’s very interesting and we will be wishing to look into that to understand why, that is, because there are some quite general implications for research dialogue there.

Also in particular we’ll want to have useful dialogues about how we meet the aspirations to people to be involved in the policy making process.