How do synthetic biologists keep the support of the public?

NOTE: As part of our ongoing coverage of the synthetic biology industry, we bring you this recent blog from the Guardian which can offer some useful insights to those who hope to see greater scrutiny over and regulation of this growing industry.

One of the central questions here is how the UK can avoid “the miserable experience [it had] with GM crops, an industry effectively crushed in the UK by lobby groups that appear to take an anticapitalist and antiglobalisation stance.” The author notes that “the GM fiasco was fuelled by the view that many first generation crops would have benefited only those multinational companies trying to sell them.” Responding to this concern, the author argues that “With synthetic biology – a largely academic pursuit – the goals have clearer, more palatable goals: to produce green fuels or create new medicines,” and the UK Science Minister adds, “The development of synthetic biology has so far avoided those mistakes.”

Given our view that synthetic biology products, like GMOs, will also “benefit only those multinational companies trying to sell them,” let’s ask the question, “how do those opposed to the synthetic biology industry build the support of the public to crush it the way UK lobby crushed GMOs?” – the GJEP team

Cross-posted from The Guardian

How do synthetic biologists keep the support of the public?

Scientists must be aware of people’s concerns and take potential risks of the field seriously, a symposium heard today

The science minister, David Willetts, gave an address this morning to an international gathering of researchers who are in London for a symposium on synthetic biology. The event is a UK-US-Chinese collaboration, bringing together the science and engineering academies from those three countries.

Willetts took the opportunity – as he should – to bang the drum for British science and promote the not-so-bad funding settlement that science research achieved in the comprehensive spending review. He emphasised that Britain was serious about blue skies research as well as those projects directed more keenly at commercial applications.

Willetts went on to raise the issue of public support for synthetic biologyand the need to keep in mind the concerns that come up in discussion groups. He drew on a public dialogue report published last year (pdf here) that goes through some of these. To quote one passage he picked on from that document:

Enabling scientists to reflect on motivations was deemed very important. What is the purpose? Why are you doing it? What are you going to gain? What else will it do? How [do] you know you are right? These are five central questions at the heart of public concerns in this area. It should be incumbent on scientists to consider them.

“I think we can deal with these issues, but it’s very important we remain aware and sensitive to them,” he said.

I asked Willetts whether government had learned anything from this country’s miserable experience with GM crops, an industry effectively crushed in the UK by lobby groups that appear to take an anticapitalist and antiglobalisation stance. Certainly the GM fiasco was fuelled by the view that many first generation crops would have benefited only those multinational companies trying to sell them.

With synthetic biology – a largely academic pursuit – the goals have clearer, more palatable goals: to produce green fuels or create new medicines. “The development of synthetic biology has so far avoided those mistakes,” Willetts said.

One of the scientists in the audience was Professor Zhao Guoping, director of the synthetic biology laboratory at the Shanghai Institute for Biological Sciences. Prof Zhao asked Willetts about the prospects of a UK-Chinese collaboration on synthetic biology. Such a deal looks likely: Willetts is heading out to China in a couple of months and agreed to put this on the agenda.

I spoke to Prof Zhao about the kind of collaboration he’d like to see. “In China, synthetic biology is a developing science in a developing country,” he said. “International collaboration is very important to make [the field] develop quickly and efficiently, to transform it into an industry.” He sees the collaboration being one where intellectual property is shared among partners.

Zhao talked about the need for common international standards for the organic bits and pieces that synthetic biologists want to use as components in their products. But agreed standards for security and ethical issues surrounding synthetic biology are also desirable.

The potential dangers of synthetic biology are often raised and rarely underplayed in the media, but Prof Zhao sees this as a crucial matter for scientists to tackle head-on.

The cloning of Dolly the Sheep led to a ripple of fears that people were next, that long-dead tyrants might be replicated, Boys from Brazil-style, or that vaguely scary cult leaders might embark on their own experiments. There are more realistic concerns with synthetic biology, Zhao said.

“For cloning a human, practically we are talking a couple of centuries for that and it is relatively easy to control. But for synthetic biology, if I really want to work on a virus that can attack something I can go and do it,” Zhao said.

“If some crazy guy wants to make a new pathogen you can say that he can’t be so smart to create something from nothing. He’ll copy some known pathogen. We should do research on the present and even extinct pathogens to understand them and know how to treat them so we are well prepared,” he added. “This is the most important issue for synthetic biology.” Back in 2005, US researchers used the tools of synthetic biology to recreate the 1918 Spanish flu virus.

China is set to become a major player in synthetic biology. The country was the first to make totally synthetic insulin nearly 50 years ago and has built up world class experience in genomics and chemistry. Since 2005, synthetic biology has gained more explicit funding, to explore “cell factories” and more recently to isolate and characterise biological parts and modules that will act as building blocks for new products. The Chinese Academy of Sciences is now preparing a strategy for synthetic biology to span the next ten years.

Britain is well-placed to benefit from a collaboration with China. This country was slow off the mark with synthetic biology, but has done much to catch up. Teaming up with China, one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, would give added impetus to a field that looks set to reap major scientific and financial rewards. We have an opportunity. Let’s learn from the GM fiasco and not waste it.

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