Synthetic Biology public dialogue - questions

Supplementary content information

Questions to the Panel at an event in London to launch the report of Synthetic Biology Public Dialogue.

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Professor Lord Robert Winston [RW]

It's now my pleasure to open it to all of the people here for questions. The gentleman who was a member of the public in the dialogue process, I'm sorry I don't remember your name sir, forgive me.

Audience Member 1

Thank you, I'd like to make a couple of suggestions actually just very quickly and that is that your bullet point presentation was far better than what is in the actual report, because I didn't think when I first read the report, I've only seen it today, that it was very reflective of the workshops in what was said, but when your bullet point presentation was done I thought it was very good and it did reflect mostly what was said in the workshops. I believe that one of the problems is, if you turn to page 20 of the report, that there was not enough consultation on community engagement and I believe it should be opened further and I think that as you say the next steps forward are very important and I agree with the re-engagement because I think that a lot of people would like to be re-engaged in this and maybe reflect on what they've said with a sense of responsibility and I would like to suggest a leap in the dark actually for some people, because I believe that a panel made up of the public and chaired by a member of the public would be a good idea rather than it being led by, shall we say, an organisation or a scientist or some kind of professional person. I do believe that somebody was saying there that the public are very astute and I think they should be given the chance actually to engage in this way.

[RW]

Thank you very much, you've raised quite a lot of really interesting points. First of all I think the very knotty one about how any report reflects exactly what takes place and I think maybe we should address that for a bit because it is quite relevant, it's pretty tricky, I think, invariably writing these sorts of reports so I guess we ought to ask Darren to respond to that and then maybe Brian. The other issue, I think, is of particular importance, forgive me if I'm paraphrasing and correct me if I've got you wrong, the issue of having a panel which is a public panel to oversee these sorts of developments in some way. I think that will be an interesting thing and we might ask our research council representatives. So Darren may I start with you.

Dr Darren Bhattachary [DB]

Sure, I apologise for my writing style as well. How we analyse this stuff is that we recorded all of the groups. We then got verbatim transcripts of the recordings - so we sent those recordings away to get typed up - then members of my team, who are here, and others went through the recordings and they, what's called charted, so they took all these little conversations and they distilled out the key points from that. These were then all merged and looked at in different ways and that became the basis of the presentation and then the report. I worked with eight members of the public, we couldn't obviously invite everyone back to help draft the conclusions, but we took two from each area. I think Janine, who is here sat in on that group, and I took them through some of the emerging findings and some things we might begin to think about in terms of conclusions and they fed back into that process as well. I mean obviously an individual member wouldn't have got the flavour of all of the discussions in all of the areas, so we are generally pretty meticulous about going through stuff and absolutely as Robert mentioned there is an editorial role there to a degree, but we try to look where themes have emerged across a number of different areas in slightly different ways and push that into one place.

[RW]

I mean it's pretty difficult isn't it to submit a draft report for approval in this sort of process because there are too many people involved. In a research council I guess we might do that where we've got a much narrower group of people, but where you've got a bigger body I think it just wouldn't be feasible. Brian do you want to add anything?

Dr Brian Johnson [BJ]

No, not much other than I was really fascinated as somebody whose responsibilities really extended to getting the process under way and maintaining the momentum, it was fascinating to me to watch how these issues unpacked in the workshops. I was very privileged to be able to go along to two workshops in two different locations and I was absolutely fascinated by how people from really quite different backgrounds were coming up with the same issues time and again and I would echo what Dave said about the sophistication of much of the debate that was going on. I mean this myth about the public not being able to understand how science works and what science is all about is exactly that, it's a myth. One thing came through very strongly that people did seem to know how science went on and they did seem to know almost intuitively the kind of issues that go on in the background within science and how science interfaces with the public, so it was fascinating watching that process unfold and I think Darren's report certainly captures a lot of the stuff I experienced personally in those workshops. Obviously I wasn't at all of them so I don't know what it was like in the round, but it was certainly reflective of a lot of what I heard.

[RW]

Maybe we could hear from our two CEOs from the research councils about the issue of public panels. It's something we've obviously talked about in various deliberations at various times. Dave do you have any views about that.

Professor David Delpy, EPSRC Chief Executive [DD]

I mean obviously there are some established areas of science, particularly on the clinical side where that sort of thing happens already especially in discussion of the ethical issues of medical research, and that's part of the discussion we've got to have during the summer to find out how were going to continue this. It is slightly more difficult in a new and very broad area like synthetic biology which hasn't yet frozen into particular research themes. We held a previous dialogue in the nano-technology area which is a little bit more developed and in fact has narrowed into specific grand challenge areas and there we were able to see how, in fact, we should get the public engaged in looking at one more specific set of choices in the nano-technology area. At the moment I find it difficult to see how I would use a panel of the general public to look across the whole of this remit, because we haven't even defined the space that synthetic biology occupies, but there will quite soon I'm sure from the research councils, some specific programmes, some grand challenges, some thematic areas that it wants to encourage research in and I think we then need to find out how were going to engage the public in looking at that sub element, that part of the whole research spectrum.

[RW]

I mean Doug, it's something in the biomedical area we do already to a very considerable extent with ethics committees don't we and I mean perhaps there's now a move towards that sort of thinking about some of the more, if you like, scientific areas rather than purely medical applications. I guess from the BBSRC you might have some views about that.

Professor Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive [DK]

Well it's something that's happened in the past and it's something that we will certainly consider. As I say we have a panel, our Biosciences for Society Panel that develops our strategy for this area and they will be doing that very thing. There are lots and lots of interesting questions that one could ask of them; I'll just give you one now. If you had the choice or ability to make a microbe that would eat oil when oxygen is present and not when it wasn't, which you could throw into the Gulf of Mexico to do a clean-up, would you do it? That's a very real question which people can ask and answer, at the moment you can't, you have to rely on natural ones which work actually quite well, but in the future people have largely been talking about producing oil with algae and things like this, but clearly in the current climate there's an occasion to do the opposite, which many people might think would be a pretty good idea. There are so many possible issues not only medical, but biological and ethical in general terms, that we'd want to think about it quite broadly and that's what we have a panel to do.

[RW]

Next question, are you happy with the answers you've got...? Not quite? By all means say so we can think about what you're saying?

Audience Member 1

Yes, I think you seem to be a bit negative, too negative, about public engagement actually and in the instance of panels, because I do believe that there are some people, maybe they wouldn't be scientists and they wouldn't know technical terms or whatever, but they would know how to engage the public and themselves. As I say I think the three workshops I was on were quite good, but at the same time I think there could've been more effort put into and maybe more funding put into making them better. I mean, I think that were getting into promises made by the government on a lot of public consultation and public engagement. I think that if you started here it'd be fantastic, it would be a good start although I don't know which one of you will take that leap in the dark because it is a bit of a leap in the dark.

[RW]

OK, thank you very much indeed, now there's a question at the back.

Mark Downes, Society of Biology

Thank you. Mark Downes, the Society of Biology. Whilst I absolutely agree that the public can come to some very clear views about science and certainly very capable of understanding it, it does depend on access to the information in the first place. And when you have these sorts of workshop groups, you can facilitate that and make sure that that happens. But of course we all know that we're driven to a large extent by the debate in the media and I wonder in that context, and picking up on something that was mentioned earlier, whether actually we are not helping ourselves a great deal by using synthetic as a term for this new area, because actually by itself it sounds pretty negative.

[RW]

Brian?

[BJ]

Thank you Robert. Well, we use whatever term happens to be there in the language at the time. This area of scientific activity is already labelled synthetic biology and it's very difficult and, in my view, undesirable to try to change it, after all I do remember a certain nuclear reprocessing facility on the Cumbrian coast that changed names, I think it was three times, so that people would forget it was there; it didn't work and it won't work.

[RW]

No, I think these strategies are unwise. There's a lady, I think you're a member of the public weren't you?

Audience Member 2

I am but I'm also a scientist.

[RW]

I wasn't sure if you were actually involved in the dialogue process originally that's all.

Audience Member 2

That's the general point actually, all scientists are also members of the public and in panels and speakers. The point I wanted to make is regard to this attitude that came from scientists that they were a small part in something that could be very big and whilst it's tempting to speculate that, that's just the reaction of the synthetic biology community to not be like Venter. I think it's more likely that there is a fear in what is, as we've said, a young and emerging community to be too ego driven, particularly given the increased need to write impact statements and to report about the more transformative aspects of our research. We're all very cautious about doing that because we're all very fearful about making too bold claims about what we might do and I think that for the scientific community is a very difficult path to tread, because on the one hand you want us to do transformative research, but on the other hand the public might say that this isn't right or that this is dangerous or this is risky. So I wondered what the research councils or generally the panel felt about that particularly, given that a lot of synthetic biologists come from the younger scientific academic community.

[RW]

It seems in view of this announcement, we should ask David Delpy, shouldn't we?

[DD]

I recognise the point you made and that's why I, in my five minute talk, said one of the advantages of this dialogue process is that it provides that safe space in which you can explore these questions, because it is difficult if you are in an exciting area, do you hype it up, of course your peers then say well this is overhyped and therefore we reject it because its incorrect. On the other hand if you play it down, as we've seen, you can be criticised because you're not actually expressing the potential benefits and risks of the whole field. So we do need an arena in which we can hold a sensible and safe dialogue and I think that's precisely what this is about. I don't have a simple answer which will give you the phrase to add to your next grant application, not yet.

[RW]

Lady in the second row.

Joyce Tate, ESRC Innogen Centre, Edinburgh University

I'm Joyce Tate from the ESRC Innogen Centre in Edinburgh University and I congratulate the people who've been involved with this report on what they've done and I think it's now quite clear that public engagement is an integral part of the decision - making process about new developments in science. I think we've got much better at this over the past 10 years. I think there's a sea change in how we do it, but there are a couple of relevant and important areas that really don't have a very high profile and could take a greater role in the process and that's questions about innovation and regulation processes, particularly risk regulation, and innovation processes, how products get taken from a scientific idea through to a product that can be developed in the market place. I think no matter how sophisticated we are at the moment about the engagement process, the way we treat these issues in the public dialogue is very simplistic indeed and I would like to see them brought in in a much more sophisticated way, with relevant social science expertise involved from those disciplines as well. Not just in the dialogue itself but in the follow up process when you're considering what you do about the dialogue you've just had and how you take decisions based on that dialogue with those other very important questions in mind.

[RW]

Thank you very much indeed, it's an important question and I think we can't but put Steven on the spot a bit, asking him if this is going to be embedded in government as a process.

Steven Axford, Head of Science and Society, BIS

OK, just thinking back very slightly, there's no doubt that we've come a long way, policymakers are often viewed as quite slow steady types and I think to have got to where we have on a number of very interesting issues that concern science and technology, to have got to the point where policymakers are going through these processes already, is a major step forward. However if this process is to really become something that adds value for many years to come and in areas where we are talking about getting the science out into true products, you know the innovative step, the taking it forward, the exploitation, if there is something about Sciencewise or some competent programme that could be developed that it covers some of those next steps, then we would of course always look at it. We want to offer the best value in the most certain way of ensuring that where science needs to be understood and the thoughts about what the public feel about whether you should go down development route a or b, just as much as they might worry about whether the fundamental science is right or wrong, ethically sound or not, they're equally valid points and we would want at some point to look at that and whether Sciencewise isn't just for the grass roots policymakers, but for the operational end of policy-making as well, we are open minded.

[RW]

I think it's an important idea and of course we do have our friends in the audience from Sciencewise and maybe they might want to comment, or put their hands up if they've got anything they immediately want to say about how they might develop the next step. I mean just sitting back from the initiator of this particular programme, Brian, whether you want to say anything about how you see one might go further with a repeated taste, dipping ones heel further into the water, if you like, of continued dialogue.

[BJ]

Well I think one essential element of dialogue is continuous debate and I don't think you can have a rolling debate that rumbles on in the background, but what you can do I think is to promote debate about those steps in the development of science and innovation that look as though they're really important and you need a mechanism to be able to do that. Venter's work, for example, some people say he hasn't created life, but nevertheless he has developed a series of techniques that really take synthetic biology into another developmental stage which is very, very important. Now the question to my mind is how do we best stimulate debate about what could come out of that step and one of the things we can do is to go back to members of the public and say well this is what we could perhaps do in the future with this developmental step, how might you use it? How do you think it might be used? How do you think it should be used? All the sorts of questions that Darren put up on the screen there, come to mind and that would give you more information about making choices as a funding agency, or as someone involved in the political process, it gives you that sounding board. I think we need to learn better ways of achieving that, perhaps we need, as David says, public panels to which we can turn periodically and the question is who should be on those panels, how do we get to them. To my mind, the easiest way of putting that kind of thing in practice is to use the web, is to use social networking facilities that have been developed on the web, so that we can capture views in a much more effective and interesting way and so I think this process of social dialogue is going to develop in the future, especially using internet.