The success of any emergent technology, particularly within a relatively new field of research, depends not only upon sound scientific practice, but also consideration of social factors influencing its direction. We therefore decided it was essential at this early stage of our research to investigate the sociology factors effecting synthetic biology, and determine how to best approach our project to ensure its future success.
Our investigation into the sociological factors influencing the progression of synthetic biology began in discussion with leading academics in the field of environmental humanities. Matthew Kearnes is an ARC Future Fellow at UNSW in the School of Humanities and Languages, focusing upon the intersection between science and social theory, including research into the social dimensions of bionanotechnologies. Eben Kirksey is a Senior Lecturer and DECRA Fellow at UNSW, researching the boundaries of nature and culture, and the political influences on the imaginative processes.
The subtle connections between science and society are often overlooked, with researchers assuming that the main issue with public acceptance of new technologies, especially in biology, is a lack of scientific communication and understanding. However, as our team discovered in conversation with Matthew Kearnes, this was an over-simplification of a multifaceted problem. Although a clear presentation of the research is important for establishing the trust of the wider community, and this contingent upon effective scientific communication, it was noted ‘when publics are given more information about genetically modified crops, or perhaps in this case synthetic biology, their concerns are amplified rather than diminished’. Broader concerns exist with the public which often are not considered at the research stage, as they should be. These concerns include issues of ownership, who controls and profits from the product, responsibility, who can be held accountable if technology goes awry, and frameworks for regulation of synthetic products.
The limited scope with which scientists approach the calculation of risk, and the effects of this restricted inquiry, was identified by Eben as a major issue in the field. The impacts on groups apart from humans, on the environment, plant, and animal species, due to unexpected side-effects of technologies, should be more thoroughly investigated, ‘trying to do imaginative work, speculative work is what needs to be done at the risk assessment phase… we need to start thinking more creatively, outside of the box’. Risk assessment should be performed not only by regulatory bodies, but by the scientists themselves. Thoroughly evaluating and balancing the risks and benefits at the research level would encourage conscientious practices, and hold scientists more accountable for their research.
The external factors influencing research were also an interesting point of tension discussed. Although we had not consciously realised this during the design of our project, political and economic pressures direct the progress of research in specific ways. As Matthew explained, ‘[synthetic biology] only impacts society as much as it’s driven by a set of social, political, and economic forces’. These external forces, and the limitations or bias they enforce of directions of research, should be kept in mind when developing new technologies. Who does this research benefit? And why should it benefit this particular group? These are questions which should be addressed at the early stages of development to clearly establish the moral groundwork of technological directions.
In the same way they societal values influence research, technological developments also have the potential to change societal structures and ideals. Drawing analogies to the development of amniocentesis and the subsequent decline of down syndrome individuals in the population, Eben prompted us to consider that ‘We have to think forward to how emerging technologies are almost legislating what the conditions of life could and should be’. As the tools of synthetic biology continues to improve, and innovations such as CRISPR/Cas9 enable gene editing not only in bacteria, but in plants and animals, classically defined moral and ethical boundaries begin to blur. Investigation into the reasons behind innovation should be made, and questions asked about whether products should be developed.
How did this effect our approach to research?
From our discussions, we were able to identify a number of important social considerations which need to be made not only for the success of our project, but for the success of all research in foundational technologies. From this we developed the following suggestion of good practice:
- Explore varying vested interests
Find out exactly who would be interested in or affected by both your research and your desired product. Consider exactly why they are vested in your research, and how you can adapt your product to best address these needs. A number of different groups, including communities, industry partners, and collaborators may be interested for a variety of different reasons. The success of a product will be determined when most or all of these interests are considered.
- Consult widely in the community
All products will exist in a social dimension, and their integration into specific sectors of society therefore should be assessed. The unique concerns of all social groups, including minorities, should be considered to improve targeted product design.
- Investigate risks broadly and inventively
Thoroughly consider the ways in which your research may go awry when exposed to unexpected variables outside the laboratory. This should be conducted with not only human health in mind, but environmental and ecological risks.
- Identify the aims of the research honestly
The motives and realities of technological developments should be honestly conveyed to stakeholders in the project. By accurately identifying why research is being undertaken, and creating clear implementation projections, a more realistic and open conversation about research is allowed.
- Share progress with stakeholders
A dialogue model should be established, where the community has a voice in product design and implementation, with progress sharing integral to this. Consultation will enable consistent re-evaluation of research progress, risks, and barriers to implementation, ultimately resulting in the creation of a technology best suited to its purpose.
After considering this for our project, we decided that at this stage in the development of our technology the most effective way to open up a dialogue with the pubic would be to hold a public panel discussion on synthetic biology (Here's how it went!). As clear applications of our project begin to be realised in the future, we intend to follow the good practices outlined above, and continue an honest dialogue with the community to improve our processes of scientific practice.