Sep 23, 2014

Summer school on synthetic biology

During the week of September 15-19, 2014 I participated in the summer school on societal implications of synthetic biology. Organized by Kristin Hagen and Margret Engelhard from the European Academy of Technology and Innovation Assessment and by Georg Toepfer from the Center for Literary and Cultural Research Berlin, it was held in Berlin, Germany, at the Center for Literary and Cultural Research.

Participants came from different countries - Austria, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada and the United States. Similarly, their backgrounds were quite diverse - biology, chemistry, philosophy, sociology, political science, and communications. The main goal of the school was to have an interdisciplinary discussion about synthetic biology as an emerging area of science and its implications for society. Participants wrote papers and presented them at the school. Additionally, several experts from various fields gave their talks. Below is a short summary of what we talked about:

The meanings and metaphors of life. Synthetic biology inevitably raises questions related to our understandings of life. On one hand, there is no universal definition of life and both philosophers and scientists continue to ponder over whether it is even possible to come up with such a definition. On the other hand, there may be no need for such definition, because a) we have an intuitive understanding of what life is and adapt as it changes, and b) having limited definitions works for specific purposes, such as understanding of how to create an artificial cell or argue against the scientific possibility of creating life from scratch. Metaphors that we use to answer the grand questions of life or to promote scientific advancements in synthetic biology bring together the domains of nature, artificiality, control, and aesthetics. Those metaphors are not “innocent” as they open some opportunities and close others.

Synthetic biology (SB) as a field. Synthetic biology is not a homogeneous discipline, it is a fuse of approaches that draw on synthetic chemistry, genetic engineering, and bioinformatics. The engineering of metabolic pathways, which allows to use bacteria and other microorganisms to produce chemicals, plays an important role in SB breakthroughs. Chemical synthesis of DNA, which allows a synthesized DNA to be inserted into an existing organism, is another important area of synthetic biology. The presentations that explained various types and flavors of synthetic biology talked about cells, pathways, chassis, microbes, reproduction, and evolution; they were colorful and full of exciting possibilities. We talked about promises of synthetic biology a lot, but I don’t think that science necessarily needs promises to justify its existence. As someone pointed out, science is a quest for knowledge, it should be interesting and exciting as such. I’m not sure science is a pure quest for knowledge, considering the convergences between science, technology, and industry. Nevertheless, I completely agree that it is exciting to learn about the world even if it's not clear whether this knowledge has applications.

Forms of communication and public dialog. Previous debates, such as the mad cow disease or GMO debate, and the resulting negative reactions demonstrate the importance of transparency in public communication of science. Early public engagement is seen as a way to improve understanding and acceptance of technology. On the other hand, the goal is not simply to promote public understanding and acceptance of technoscience, but rather to let voices of the public contribute to decision-making and regulatory frameworks. Many forms of public engagement, including polls, surveys, citizen panels, public discussions, and so on, have been promoted in the EU, and the results seem to indicate that even though not many people have heard about synthetic biology, many see continuities with previous scientific advancements and technologies and are willing to consider both positive and negative aspects of it.

Even from the short overview above it is obvious that there is a great diversity in the issues surrounding synthetic biology and approaches to their evaluation. Can they be integrated or synthesized? My own suggestion is to take a problem- rather than a debate-oriented approach and look for solutions to specific problems, while avoiding taking things for granted. Everyone has their interests and values and even the best intentions may result in bad outcomes. To use M. Foucault’s approach, we need to examine the order of things and the complex arrangements of what’s visible and hidden and what or who is included and excluded.

It was a week of stimulating discussions. The atmosphere was very friendly and collegial, and the disagreements were often phrased as humorous, slightly sarcastic remarks over dinner or drinks. My take-away from this summer school is that interdisciplinary dialog is possible, necessary, and fruitful. It works provided that we have ample time to interact and go beyond formalities (i.e., beyond formal presentations and opinion polls). The school has ended, but the work continues. We will revise our papers based on collective feedback, and they will become chapters in a forthcoming book.

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