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Biotechnology and safety

Picture: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock

Wetenschappers aan het werk
Developments in biotechnology are of social and economic importance. They can play an important role in addressing some of the major societal challenges. But biotechnological developments can also involve potential risks regarding the health of people or the environment, for example. This puts safety at risk. What is the role of government policy when it comes to biotechnology and safety? And how can the government cooperate with researchers in the field to make safe biotechnology possible, now and in the future? The Rathenau Instituut is researching this question within the T-TRIPP project, among other things.

Opportunities and risks

The government wants to exploit the innovation opportunities of biotechnology and, therefore, stimulates biotechnology by means of subsidy programmes for research and development. However, in addition to advantages and opportunities, the development of new biotechnology also involves risks. Think of safety risks, such as the escape of a genetically modified organism from a lab. Environmental risks or biodiversity risks can also occur. Think of a genetically modified plant that is so strong that all other plants of that species die out as a result. There could also be social consequences for a society. For example, when one company is the owner of all these "super seeds" and has complete authority over them.

The importance of government policy

Good government policy should make it possible for society to benefit from technological developments and minimise the negative consequences of its associated risks. But that is not an easy task. In recent years, government policy on biotechnology has been challenged in various ways: 

  • The pace of innovation in biotechnology is high. As a result, among politicians and policy makers, as well as scientists, often very little is known about new biotechnology and its associated risks for people and the environment.
  • Modern biotechnology deals with complex living systems (at genetic, cellular, organism and ecosystem level) that can spread and evolve. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to predict all possible risks.
  • Social and cultural issues often play a role in the societal application and acceptance of biotechnology. The government must take this into account as well.

Research for a future-proof safety policy

The difficulty of assessing the risks of modern biotechnology prompts the question: how can biotechnology be developed in a safe and socially responsible manner? The Rathenau Instituut is working on a number of projects researching safety in biotechnology. One of these projects is the T-TRIPP project (read: Tools for Translating Risk research into Policies and Practices).

The aim of the T-TRIPP project is to strengthen cooperation and communication between scientists working on safety in biotechnology  and policy makers. This cooperation is important if we want to benefit from the opportunities of biotechnology in the future and at the same time guarantee safety. After all, in order to make policy, the government needs up-to-date knowledge about the risks of biotechnology. This knowledge can be produced by the researcher. And subsequently, the government can learn from this new knowledge and incorporate it into safety policy, so that it matches the rapid developments in biotechnology.

Tools for ‘translating’ risk research into policy and practice

New developments raise new questions for policy. How can innovations and the risks associated with them be incorporated into the existing framework of rules for biotechnology? Or do new developments necessitate adjustments to the current regulations? Both scientists and policy makers can play a role in answering these questions. In order for this cooperation to run smoothly, the knowledge that is shared must be regularly 'translated'. So that it is understandable and applicable to the different areas where it is needed.

Scientists cannot tell how safe is 'safe enough'. They can, however, provide the data needed to assess risks and the methods used to do so. This data needs to be interpreted and transformed into policy. And vice versa, a question from policy needs to be 'translated' into a question that can be understood and answered by science. The T-TRIPP project supports this translation by providing insight into the learning process between research and policy, and by developing instruments to guide and reinforce this learning process. We do this in the following three ways:

1.     A report for insight and policy options
On the basis of literature, interviews and workshops, the T-TRIPP project maps out who are involved in the development and implementation of safety policy in biotechnology and what is the interaction between the different actors and institutions? In doing so, we look specifically at the interactions between the science and policy domain. In this way we provide a better understanding of the cooperation and communication between research and policy, and we formulate recommendations that strengthen these interactions. All these insights and recommendations are compiled in a report.

2.     A protocol for social learning
Based on the insights from the study, we are developing a protocol for social learning. Our study showed that there was still too little cooperation between research and policy. This can lead to frustration, because the different groups do not understand each other. To reduce this tension, we are developing a protocol that enables and supports interaction between different stakeholders. This protocol also helps to increase understanding of each other's values and perspectives on risk-related issues.

3.     Serious games for mutual understanding and safety awareness

De doos van MachiaCelli Teams

In addition, within the T-TRIPP project we are developing three serious games. These are games that are not only intended for fun and entertainment. The main aim is to teach players something, to make them aware of something or get them talking about something. The different games within this project each strengthen the cooperation between research and policy in their own way.

The first two board games, called MachiaCelli Switch and MachiaCelli Teams, encourage cooperation between researchers and policymakers. By playing the games, players experience a biotechnological project from the perspective of both scientists and policymakers. Within the game, they switch roles or work together as a team.

Een foto van het T-tripp spel

In our research, we saw a lack of safety awareness among junior researchers. To show these researchers that biosafety can be fun, we created the third game, 'Cards for biosafety', which teaches researchers about biosafety. This is done by challenging and rewarding each other to choose the most appropriate (or creative) measure for a certain risk.

Download Cards for Biosafety

Interested to learn more about Cards for Biosafety? Read the article below or download the files and print your own Cards for Biosafety.

How do we move forward?

All these different components that we developed within this project help to guide and strengthen the mutual learning process between research and policy. In this way, we hope to create a space in which researchers, policy makers, and risk assessors, among others, can jointly learn and reflect on what is needed to ensure safety in biotechnology in the future. In the near future, we will publish the results of the serious games, the protocol, and our research on this page.