Monday, 6 December 2010

Making Out the Promise of Synthetic Biology

Blog post by Heather Lowrie, Innogen (on Session 1B - Making Out the Promise of Synthetic Biology)

Visions of a biodigital future include the ability to engineer biology, synthesise novel living things and get biological products to do new jobs for us in smarter ways. Dr. Emma Frow from the Genomics Forum chaired a lively session asking: how plausible is this, and what concerns would accompany moves to take such products to market?

Dr. Rob Carlson, principal of Biodesic LLC, kicked off with a fascinating insight into cutting edge research and development in the field, including work at Harvard Medical School on photosynthetic fish and his work on the emerging bio economy. Rob argued that scientists are rebuilding the fundamental nature of organisms by incorporating technologies from other organisms or human design, prompting a lively debate on the extent to which outcomes are predictable. 

Marie-Ange Baucher provided policy insights by sharing the findings of the major OECD exercise on synthetic biology last year - a symposium organised in Washington, DC with the US National Academies and the UK Royal Society. Next steps for the OECD on synthetic biology will be discussed at the forthcoming meeting of the Working Party on Biotechnology (WPB), here in Paris in two days’ time. Also relevant will be an OECD project on technological convergence due to start in 2011.

Finally, Steve Yearley, Director of the ESRC Genomics Forum closed with some stimulating thoughts on the case for public participation in cases of uncertainty or high risk where judgement comes into play, assessing the democratic arguments that a judgment call should be accountable through participatory mechanisms. What is the role of social scientists in ‘making out the future’? Public engagement is an important tool but there are lots of influences on how the future is made out in public contexts and new technologies are not always predictable in the ways we might think.

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