With its claim to construct living organisms, synthetic biology raised a lot of heads within the science community. Public interest, however, has remained low. An international team of experts, working within the EU funded project SYNENERGENE, has set out to change that.
Synthetic biology aims at constructing living organisms from scratch. It wants to re-program existing organisms, using standardized genetic building blocks. This could lead to the construction of organisms with entirely new properties. The approach promises to deliver new applications, for example in the area of pharmaceuticals. If it works, biological science could be transformed following true engineering principles, creating “products” efficiently and in a well-planned way.
Different expert bodies have commented on both ethical aspects and risks associated with this field of research. From a science policy perspective, the main question is how the development of synthetic biology might be shaped to meet the requirements for Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI).
SYNENERGENE picked up on this very issue. The project, executed as part of the EU’s 7th framework program (under ‘science and society’), aimed at stimulating the publics’ interest in synthetic biology through various participatory methods. By drawing from a wider range of perspectives, it wanted to add on to existing pools of knowledge that help shape technologies responsibly. To do so, stakeholders from industry, science and civil society were brought into a dialogue.
The ITA’s task was to comparatively analyse different forms of dialogue. Such dialogues took place in the context of exhibitions, film festivals or science cafés, for example. The ITA’s analyses showed that lively controversies develop within the framework of this invited participation, especially when diverse normative positions are represented in the citizens’ panels and the participants are able to actively shape the framing of the concrete issue at stake.