Responsible Research and Innovation in synthetic biology

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, 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.

SYNENERGENE picks up on this very issue. The project, executed as part of the EU’s 7th framework program (under ‘science and society’), aims at stimulating the publics’ interest in synthetic biology through various participatory methods. By drawing from a wider range of perspectives, it wants to add on to existing pools of knowledge that help shape technologies responsibly. To do so, stakeholders from industry, science and civil society are brought into a dialogue. The outcome of the dialogue events, for example concrete proposals for a potential regulation of synthetic biology, will be made available as recommendations for the EU’s innovation policy.

The ITA’s task is to comparatively analyse different forms of dialogue. Such dialogues will be held in the context of exhibitions, film festivals or science cafés, for example. Will they fulfil the demands for inclusiveness, openness and transparency? The ITA’s empirical analysis might not only serve to continuously improve the forms of dialogue events applied by the project partners. It might also contribute to the on-going debate on the benefit of participation.