Synthetic biology dialogue - findings and recommendations

Supplementary content information

Duration: 23:43

Dr Darren Bhattachary, TNS-BMRB Executive Director. The dialogue and the main findings and recommendations.

If available, we will provide a transcript of each recording. If there is no transcript and you require one, you can do so by emailing pressoffice@epsrc.ac.uk, your request will be acknowledged within 15 working days.

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Lord Robert Winston [RW]

I’m going to ask Darren Bhattachary to speak next. He’s from the British Marketing Research Board and he conducted the actual dialogue process on behalf of BBSRC and EPSRC and I think Darren you are going to present the main findings of the dialogue process.

Dr Darren Bhattachary – TNS-BMRB Executive Director

Thank you Robert. I’ve got 20 minutes so I’m going to speak pretty fast as I’ve got a lot to get through. I’m going to do three things, I’m going to look at the method, I’m going to overview the public dialogue findings and some stuff on the stakeholder infusion and then I’m going to draw some conclusions. So our approach, Brian’s already gone through much of this so I won’t reiterate it, 41 interviews, seven groups who are listed there engaged 160 people across the UK, London, Wales Newcastle and Edinburgh in three workshops. The first of those looked at science and technology in general terms and then we looked at how those conversations might be applied to synthetic biology. The second looked at the kind of visions or the aspirations around the science and also looked at how the science gets done, so how it’s funded and its governance, and then the third looked at some potential application areas and I’ll go into what they were in more depth shortly.

So I’m going to cut straight to the chase and get to the findings of the first workshop – how the public view science technology in general. I’m going to focus on two areas, medical science and food applications, just to give you a flavour of what was said. What characterised medical sciences in particular was the sense of amazement about what it can do, so things like stem cells were mentioned, cancer research and fertility research, robotics, a whole bunch of things were mentioned there, but it was this kind of huge amazement about what it could do, the impacts on human health and the impacts on people personally in terms of transforming their lives.

More broadly all these technologies were discussed in terms of the impacts, the social impacts it has on people and social relationships. So an obvious example is things like the relationships between experts and lay people, between doctors and patients, things like the internet and the ability to self-check transforming that relationship, some people thought that was good others less so, but it had transformed that relationship nonetheless. It also precipitated other things as well - the kind of pill popping culture and this idea of quick fixes, the idea that you go to the doctor and before you’ve got your jacket off he’s written your prescription. There were lots of concerns around aspects of genetic science, for a minority of the group this was seen as unnatural, but that wasn’t a dominant theme. And these types of conversations got played out to a degree later in terms of syn-bio.

Boundary issues were much more significant, so by that I mean about where the science stops and where it should go or shouldn’t go, so there were discussions on human enhancements and also we had debates around human and non-human nature – we touched on things like hybrid embryos for instance in terms of stem cell research. The area is generally seen as well regulated and reasonably safe though there were notable problems cited. One guy I remember bringing up an issue around gene therapy and how the promises around science often don’t necessarily materialise. The area is seen profoundly driven by profit and big pharma always gets wheeled out as the villain in this piece and it played its part in this debate, but alongside that there was this concern that as a consequence new treatments may become unaffordable to the NHS and people might lose out, so it wouldn’t be free to all at the point of need. Moreover there was a lack of power for individual participants to be seen to be shaping innovation in this area.

This next one is on food technologies. One of the main things that really jumped out, and this was quite different from medical science, is this idea that food was being tampered with or played with and you just don’t know what you’re eating any more. This is both in relation to things like the genetic manipulation of food but more broadly just in terms of food additives and so on.

Overall there seemed to be increased choice in food, but a decrease in quality in part because of this kind of manipulation and some of the drivers for that ie because of the public demanding cheap food and wanting it widely available 52 weeks in the year, but there were also other bigger drivers like population growth, climate change, these conversations were also brought up too. There was a much stronger sense on agri-environmental applications as opposed to health ones, about these distinctions between natural, which was equated with being healthy and good, and artificial which has things bad or having side effects and again these narratives when we’re thinking about synthetic biology are also important. Like the health side, people felt disconnected from the food production and they have little idea, from farm to fork, what goes on particularly for processed food and again access for food technologies particularly in the developing world was seen as an issue. So what are some of the recurrent themes when we discussed all this? The first was around motivations so why are people doing this in the first instance, what’s driving them to develop these technologies. The second is that when people discuss these things, they discuss it in terms of how it’s shaped their relationship to their friends and their family, to society more generally and to the world. The third is whose driving this application, who are the winners and who are the losers from it. The fourth is this idea of lack of control they have over these things or they might be kept in the dark. There are some nice quotes in the report on this. And the fifth is the health and environmental impacts of technologies. Those can be positive and negative they’re not bad.

So we introduced synthetic biology at the end of the first workshop and asked people for their initial thoughts. The first thing was just this real sense of fascination about the concept of applying engineering to biology. And these next two points are inter related, it’s both exciting and scary, there was this real sense of extremes, huge potential but big concerns, wow it’s amazing but god it scares the hell out of me, those were conversations that were very dominant in this. Misuse was absolutely a concern, but there was also a sense that it shouldn’t stop development and appropriate safeguards would be needed and a lot of people in the first instance really saw it outside their frame of reference, the term unimaginable was used a lot. There was also a lot of uncertainty as to what it would do and who was driving this. Between the first and second workshop we sent people away. They had a chat to their friends and family and we asked them to think about the kind of central questions, the primary questions, that you might ask a synthetic biologist and these things really focused much more on motive rather than impact. I personally think there are five things you could ask a scientist. What is the purpose, why do you want to do it, what are you going to gain from it, what else is it going to do and how do you know you are right. I think these are very important questions about the motivations of scientists, engineers and others in this area.

We asked people for their initial hopes and concerns in this area, the hopes because it was very, very early stage research. Obviously there was a lot of support for basic research and the advancement of knowledge. Unsurprisingly given the current economic climate the idea of these technologies in terms of Britain’s economic competitiveness was underscored. There was a real sense of these technologies being able to address these big issues of society. Things like addressing serious diseases, climate change and energy and a real hope that these people, scientists and others, have the imagination as well as the potential to provide these solutions. There were a number of concerns, the fact that science will progress too quickly when impacts were unknown, that people just expected something to go wrong, it was absolutely seen as inevitable this wasn’t up for debate, they just felt that something would go wrong and in particular this was related to the kind of uncontrolled release of organisms in the environment and the potential impact on people and the environment. It must be regulated well, scientists weren’t seen as being able to self-regulate and there were big concerns over DIY garage biology and I’ll come onto this later in terms to regulation, how on earth you get systems up to govern that appropriately.

As mentioned before these ideas of winners and losers and who they would be, this idea that it was in some way against nature, again this was a minority view, but this is an important narrative and I’ll come onto it later. Another concern is actually if you don’t do any of this stuff you’re going to lose out and people were concerned we wouldn’t end up doing it or there’d be blockers placed in the way.

We explored a number of visions to the science. By visions I mean we looked at some of the things that scientists had said, social scientists had said, NGOs and industry from the interviews and we pulled out some of those things. And when we asked people to respond to that they became much more excited by some of the applications and the possibilities of synthetic biology. The other thing that became much more clear, was the need for international control and regulation, it seems absolutely vital. The challenges of global governance were profound and again I’ll come onto this in a second when I discuss regulation in more depth.

We looked at some video diaries as Brian mentioned they were great eye openers into the lives of scientists. I think everyone felt they’d be sitting in all these wizzy high tech labs, but the reality quite shocked people in terms of the average life of a scientist. Absolutely they thought people were trying hard to improve the quality of life, but there were concerns about how far scientists would take the science and, in particular, this might be OK in terms of biological systems, but it becomes much more problematic when you consider synthetically creating more complex life. People did see this as obviously being some time away, but the potential might be there. Tied to this earlier, scientists motivation, they absolutely liked the fact that scientists were really passionate and excited about this, but they also felt that it might make them focus on the positive and may mean they miss the risks. There were big concerns about unintended consequences, for instance, there were concerns about bioterrorism, though on the whole it was generally felt that there were easier ways of committing terrorism than biosynthetic biology. And overall there needs to be something other than the market, you can’t just leave this to goods and services produced by firms and really that profit shouldn’t be the primary thing shaping applications in this area. So what do the public want? The public wanted scientists to take more responsibility, to have a duty in thinking through the implications of the work and really to ensure that the right people were working on synthetic biology in the right place and for the right reasons. I’ll explore what that means in a bit more depth shortly.

We were keen to, as the research councils had funded it, to reflect some of the conversations around them, so we discussed how science gets funded. People had issues with what constitutes good science and the funding of good science and whether or not this should encompass something more than technical excellence, so good in a more normative or social sense. There was a concern that research councils’ review of funding was mainly done by other scientists, again this kind of self-regulation concern and that the research councils have a clear responsibility to consider the wider implication of the work that they fund. They didn’t think in terms of the current processes that ethical considerations were given enough prominence. They were in there, but weren’t prominent and at times it appeared fairly perfunctory or formulaic and passive in the grants process rather than being central to it. There were also opportunities here to work with other interests, NGOs, public and other groups as well and embed those knowledges into the research councils.

There was a real big thing about negative results and that you must publish things that go wrong and highlight those as well as just focusing on the good stuff. Regulation was a big, big issue and again I’ll come into this in the conclusion. It can’t be done on a voluntary basis so it’s pointless looking for standards being developed in industry as and when things emerge, it needs to be much more prospective than that and there needs to be international standards. A lot of the risks were actually seemed to be coming from other countries rather than the UK per say, it was also acknowledged to be very hard to achieve in practice. It can’t be controlled completely so you need to proceed very carefully, this idea of taking baby steps from the laboratory, small scale field trials in the case of environmental release before its full release.

This idea of an evolving regulatory system was absolutely underscored and there was generally more tension around environmental applications as in deliberate release than in industrial processes. As I mentioned earlier, garage biology people, how on earth do we begin to regulate that and on the flip side of all this too much regulation will hamper progress.

So what were some of the recurrent themes, again a nice list of five things. Mistakes are inevitable, you can’t control all the risks, there are unknown risks at these stages, and release into the environment is an issue, so proceed with caution. I’m going to run through very quickly some of the application areas, we looked at four and the first is medical applications. We touched in particular on artemisinin, the anti-malarial drug. People were really, really impressed with the idea of being able to design an organism to develop a drug. It became slightly more complex when we looked at other potential uses. Drug development was fine, the potential use of it for sensors or devices in the human body there were more concerns around that particularly in terms of impact on personal responsibility, as well as the health impacts on the body. Mood and physical enhancement was also seen as another area on that continuum of things where you’re getting less and less support. The main thing about medical applications was that risk was internalised. With people it seemed to reside within the patient, so with a lot of the other things everyone bore the risk, but if I took a drug or took some kind of treatment developed through these processes, then the risk seems to predominantly preside with the individual and that kind of risk calculus was changed particularly for life threatening diseases when people would often take big risks. There’s a bigger issue in this about the wider society implications of personal choices in terms of taking synthetic biology applications in that regard.

Environmental applications, this was generally in terms of bioremediation. There was a need to clean up ‘the horrendous state of the planet’, that was a direct quote, but there was a concern that these techno fixes may create future problems. There were big concerns around potential environmental impacts, the idea that bacteria which are quite resilient can mutate quickly and there are obvious examples of bacteria surviving very extreme environmental conditions, how categorically can you say it can be controlled. We discussed things like terminator genes in that regard, but people were still sceptical that we could absolutely control stuff. There was also a big issue of once it’s out you can’t put it back in so it’s irretrievable.

Also concerns about what remains after remediation whether these by-products will be toxic. It was also seen as less of a priority area given some of these risks and really actually there’s as much to be doing about tackling causes of pollution in the first instance, rather than cleaning up the mess. All of these were generally supported, if you look in the report there was a majority of people in support of all these applications. I don’t want to give the impression that everybody was anti it wasn’t. But there were much more concerns around environmental applications.

Energy applications were viewed very positively, as efficient and less polluting ways of developing fuels. It was particularly positive if it focused on digesting the indigestible plant biomass. I guess one concern here was if there were a market for fuels created it would have a lot of the attendant land and water resource issues associated with other biofuels and people were concerned that if you stimulate a market, suddenly people will start planting it more for energy rather than for food use per say. As an example of contained use, they generally thought it was safer rather than safe, but there was a big concern about profit in this area, big energy corporations have a history of greed overriding social concerns, but there was seen to be a definite need. They didn’t think we’d all be walking to work, we do need a lot of energy, there was a definite need and people need to think creatively in this space.

Food applications, unsurprisingly one of the more contentious areas, was viewed as very similar to GM crops. The big narratives, food security, food scarcity, were picked up but again much could be done through less technical means tackling distribution and waste. There was a fundamental issue around the application of science to food, a number of people highlighted it’s got bad written all over it, so it gets back to the stuff about things being messed with all the time and people not quite realising why. Obviously it would need effective testing and regulations, but concerns because these would be in the environment. Long-term impacts might not be picked up in this area, in particular people didn’t think public views would make a difference. There are some specific things as well in terms of the application cross pollinisation, a concern that local producers particularly in developing countries could be marginalised through large agri-biotech firms holding the Intellectual Property. We also asked people around future dialogue and the five things they flagged up and I’ll come onto these again at the end. So how far has the science progressed, these are some things that the public said they’d like to understand a bit more about and has it fulfilled some of its promises that they heard about in the dialogue sessions itself. Had the research trajectories changed or altered as a result of these debates? Who is or has benefitted from this? What mistakes, as I said earlier this is really important, have been made or problems have occurred and how is it being monitored. These are five prospective watching brief areas the public said they wanted to know more about.

I’m going to very briefly run through the stakeholder stuff, not to denigrate the great things that came out, it’s just there’s not a huge amount of time. The field itself is seen as very diverse and this idea that if you try to pigeon hole it too much it could actually inhibit research, so there was some resistance in even defining what is syn-bio. The second point’s really important, this kind of tension between the unremarkable and the transformative. What I mean by that is when we spoke to individual scientists they saw their work as incremental, not terribly remarkable just adding their little bit, but the field overall was seen as life changing, you know really really big impacts and so this disconnect, and its more than just the sum of the parts, between how people view their own work and see themselves as actors in this process, versus the impact overall and that needs to be thought through.

Overall within this, one of the key take out point is a lot of it echoes stuff in the public dialogue, this kind of idea of applying engineering principles was problematic and the other thing is I think the key points at the end. How these people see themselves as acting in the debates and their motivations and responsibilities, I think there was a big kind of disconnect between those two things. Very quickly onto the conclusions. What’s unique about syn-bio? Well, as I say it’s kind of these big enthusiasms, big fears are absolutely fundamental. I think one of the key things I want to draw out around this is this last point, this idea of being able to treat nature as nothing more as parts to be assembled. People found that quite difficult to get their head around and I think there’s an inherent tension at the heart of the field. Nature’s just far too complex, too stochastic to be able to do this. And also the idea of engineering principles being applied to biology, implies being able to scale up on an industrial scale so both the ambition to be able to do that and the idea of being able to control it at that level was seen as problematic. Again even the term synthetic-biology was seen as quite problematic, seen as the two words not quite fitting together.

Funding and leadership at the research councils, the key point here is there is a real need for the research councils to open up what research gets funded and how and in particular the public wanted to play some kind of role in that. That doesn’t mean sticking the lay member of the public on a two day meeting when they decide which projects are funded, it’s about trying to think, from when they first get the application to when they get funded, whether there’s some scope to make that more accessible to people and for the panel to consider public views and things of more than a technical nature.

I mentioned earlier, this right people right places and for the right reasons. I mean the research councils need to think this through in terms of what this means for research groupings and for networks and who has a voice in this process when they’re moving forward. A real big thing is about how developed are the capabilities of scientists to think through responsibilities and this tension between curiosity driven science and some of these wider implications. It’s just not reason enough to do it because you’re interested in it and I think the main thing is about opening up and talking about negative results, talking about uncertainties and really this needs to happen by changing organisations, by the leaders getting involved developing new systems, developing new conversations amongst scientists they fund and rewarding people for working, in a slightly different way as well. Innovation was also seen to be a big thing. Rather than see it as a pipeline, an idea of these bright guys and a product coming out further down the sausage machine as it were, but really opening up their mass innovation, crowd sourcing, these ideas were coming out of it saying there’s an opportunity to embed new ideas, new voices into the innovation chain earlier, but a key thing alongside of that is what sorts of technologies are produced, if your respectful or mindful of nature and what are the consequences of seeing life as nothing more than parts to be assembled. People questioned this so if you asked these more metaphysical questions as well as getting other voices in, people felt that the innovation produced from that would look quite different.

Control is really, really important. Regulation is a real issue. The two or three key things are that the institutional capacity for regulators to imagine the future and keep up with advances, was seen as lacking and needed to be addressed. There was a need for international coordination, a lot of the regs are currently coming through GM, regulations, these regs are having a hard enough job keeping up with what’s going on in GM without what might come out through syn-bio, so that space needed to be looked at too. And this idea of adaptive governance, which was flagged up by the Royal Commission of Environmental Pollution’s report on Nanotechnology, is I think really important; I’d recommend people looking at it. How you can develop new governance systems to begin to respond to things where there’s a lot of uncertainty basically. I think the key thing in terms of the next steps is that yes people were very positive about this, but it was conditional and the key thing in this regard is that the public need to be re-engaged to this process in terms of thinking through the institutional responses to it. About the activities of researchers, about the regulatory systems, about research and development processes. It’s not just good enough that the next time these guys hear from them it’s a Christmas card saying thanks very much and we’ve done x, y and z. I think they actually need to be involved in thinking through those new processes as well as being invited back to hear what’s gone on, and I think there’s a duty for the research councils to respond to these conditions and to explain how they’ve been met in due course. Thank you.

[RW]

Thank you.