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Society and synthetic cells

Report
26 April 2022
A position paper by the Future Panel on Synthetic Life
synthetic cell Biotechnology making perfect lives

Illustration: Rathenau Instituut

Image
Illustratie van een cel die aan de basis ligt van al het leven
The BaSyC consortium, whose acronym stands for 'building a synthetic cell', proposes to develop a synthetic cell from the bottom up. In the context of this joined effort, the Rathenau Instituut and Radboud University Nijmegen have organised the Future Panel on Synthetic Life to explore the social challenges, dilemmas, and possible societal impacts of synthetic cell research, and to advise how this research may contribute to a fair and sustainable future.

During multiple online and offline meetings within a period of two years, the Future Panel discussed the role and perspectives of key stakeholders (academia, government and governance, industry, and civil society), besides more specific issues like public responses, biosafety, biosecurity, and intellectual property rights. This position paper summarises the most important points of conversation, shared insights, key challenges and dilemmas that were discussed during these meetings. The four recommendations can be seen as a starting point for further analysis and discussion.

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Summary

The BaSyC consortium, whose acronym stands for building a synthetic cell, proposes to develop a synthetic cell from the bottom up. In the context of this joined effort, the Rathenau Instituut and Radboud University Nijmegen have organised the Future Panel on Synthetic Life, consisting of societal experts, to explore the social challenges, dilemmas, and possible societal impacts of synthetic cell research, and to advise how this research may contribute to a fair and sustainable future. The goal for the Future Panel is to create an initial agenda for future political, academic, and public debate on the synthetic cell.

The profile of science and technology is two-sided. On the one hand, they act as drivers for problem-solving, progress, and emancipation, but techno-scientific innovation can also give rise to disruptive threats. Therefore, societal reflection should be timely and anticipatory. Rather than asking what risks and benefits are involved, the question will be how to engage society in such a way that synthetic cell research can become a joint endeavour, responsive to societal hopes and concerns. Consequently, the Future Panel aimed to:

  • map the social challenges and dilemmas in a society where a synthetic cell exists;
  • identify conditions under which synthetic cell technology can be considered beneficial for society; and
  • advice on how these conditions can be realised.

To contribute to this, the Future Panel discussed the role and perspectives of key stakeholders (academia, government and governance, industry, and civil society), besides more specific issues like public responses, biosafety, biosecurity, and intellectual property rights during multiple online and offline meetings within a period of two years. This position paper summarises the most important points of conversation, shared insights, key challenges, dilemmas that were discussed during these meetings, resulting in four recommendations, as a starting point for further analysis and debate.

Key challenges

During the deliberations, the Future Panel encountered four overarching challenges.

  1. The novelty of synthetic cell research makes it challenging to devise a methodology capable of anticipating public concerns in a domain where overt public attitudes do not exist as of yet.
  2. As long as the existing power structures within the contexts that shape developments in science and technology are not explicitly addressed, the development of a synthetic cell will inevitably reproduce and may even strengthen existing power inequalities.
  3. In order to involve civil society and allow citizens to articulate their views and concerns, besides factual information, the synthetic cell has to be positioned in a proper context: how to develop a responsible narrative that allows the public to actively relate to these developments? 
  4. Even though the BaSyC project is halfway, there are still many unknowns, even unknown unknowns. A key challenge is to connect social, ethical, and science perspectives, and dilemmas, ambitions, and uncertainties related to the building of a synthetic cell.

Dilemmas

During the panel discussions, many reasons have arisen, from different perspectives, for involving the general public, governments, industry and NGOs in an anticipatory way. However, doing this reveals some fundamental dilemmas and tensions that should be addressed.

  1. The BaSyC project is curiosity-driven, aspiring to deepen our understanding of life. At the same time, our desire to know is driven by an impetus to control. How to practice synthetic cell research as a dialogue with nature rather than an appropriation and instrumentalisation of the living cell?
  2. Many aspects of synthetic cell research are yet unknown. How to allow space for the unknown while, at the same time, opt for an anticipatory and imaginative approach to take the future social and ethical implications and concerns into account?
  3. How to make research more inclusive by involving public, politics and policy in such a way that it is fostering and inspirational rather than detrimental for curiosity-driven experimentation and exploration?
  4. Curiosity-driven science requires a great deal of specialism and thrives on serendipity. How to achieve convergence in science, involving multiple stakeholders and taking into account societal expectations and concerns, without frustrating the process of discovery?
  5. Deliberation requires a dialogue across disciplines, languages, and levels of information. How to combine different vocabularies, perspectives, socio-cultural and time horizons in a meaningful way?
  6. Within science and technology, and in particular biotechnology, there has long been a discussion about how to deal with knowledge and intellectual property rights. Should life be considered patentable or should life be seen as a common heritage that belongs to everybody?
  7. How to deal with researchers who need to make their work openly accessible, and companies, incubators, and organisations that want to protect their invention?
  8. Within projects of four to five years, researchers are under pressure to focus on and deliver scientific publications, while at the same time being encouraged to actively reflect on and engage with the potential societal impact of their work. How to balance conflicting expectations related to different time horizons?

The Future Panel proposes four recommendations for fostering a socially responsible development of the synthetic cell (see: recommendations).

 

Recommendations

The development of a synthetic cell that contributes to a more sustainable and fairer society requires scientific and technical innovation, but also societal involvement, governance, and regulation. This implies building bridges between science and society on multiple levels, fostering public awareness of the possibilities and impossibilities of synthetic cell research, combining a fascination for discovery with an understanding of how this type of research may contribute to a sustainable and inclusive future. Below, the Future Panel presents four recommendations for fostering a socially responsible development of the synthetic cell. 

1. Ensure that the synthetic cell contributes to a fair and sustainable future

The synthetic cell may contribute to the development of technologies that are sustainable and bio-compatible rather than disruptive, provided this type of research becomes part of a broader development that involves cultural, political, and normative dimensions as well. This will result in research programmes and technologies that are value-driven and guided by respect for nature and people.

To foster sustainable synthetic cells, we need co-constructed narratives that allow us to explore how synthetic cells may contribute to a sustainable future. A comparative exploration of future scenarios will help us make informed decisions, by addressing scientific prospects as well as societal concerns, expectations and needs. Including for instance the question how synthetic cell research can contribute to achieving SDGs. To contribute to a more sustainable future, it is not enough to stimulate technoscientific innovation as such. Governments must simultaneously stimulate social innovation, and promote broad stakeholder involvement in synthetic cell research.

2. Organise participation of civil society in synthetic cell research

Establishing, regaining, and maintaining public trust in science requires genuine participation of civil society in scientific research in such a way that it may have important consequences for future developments in research and society.

In order to ensure that synthetic cell research contributes to a fair and sustainable society, an inclusive and participatory process of reflection is required, open to public intelligence, and sensitive to societal expectations and concerns. This requires innovative methods to engage the wisdom of the crowd. This can, for instance, be achieved by organising a platform for formal and informal communication, in which researchers and societal stakeholders participate right from the start of the research process. Meetings with societal stakeholders should be organised on relevant issues at different moments of the project. These meetings should be designed as in-between spaces in which different meanings, interests, and societal values come together and are made explicit. Such interspaces should provide safety for free talk and joint exploration as a process which leads to mutual understanding and careful decision-making about scientific and related social and ethical issues and developments. Use dialogue principles for conversations between stakeholders from different backgrounds. This implies that the right and the space to speak should be equal for scientists, governments, civil society, lawyers, human rights organizations, environmental activists, and so on.

3. Foster a socially responsive academic ecosystem

Rather than endorsing the status quo, synthetic cell research emphasises the importance of rethinking the university of the 21st century. Research and education must become more inclusive and interactive, bent on developing long-term partnerships with companies and governmental organisations, but first and foremost with society at large. Encouraging societal responsiveness and interaction requires adjustment of how science is organised and researchers are rewarded, for otherwise, it runs the risk of becoming an extra burden, rather than an integrated task.

This includes empowering researchers to engage with society. Societal reflection and interaction with society should be an integral part of academic research and education. Sustainable synthetic cell technology requires societal anticipation, imaginative deliberation, and mutual learning. Therefore, researchers must be empowered to engage with society in such a way that dialogue and interaction become an inherent part of their work, from design to publication. This includes an understanding of the power dynamics in the development of emerging technologies. Thus, the training of future scientists should include societal, governance, ethical aspects of research, as well as the art of public dialogue. Top-down control structures and approaches will estrange researchers and discourage rather than foster genuine interaction.

4. Design social governance experiments aimed at renewing the regulatory landscape for new biotechnologies, including the synthetic cell

 Ensuring that the synthetic cell will be able to contribute to a more sustainable and socially equitable world requires an adequate social understanding of governance and regulatory systems. The current regulatory system is not prepared for that task, and needs to be developed parallel to synthetic cell research. This is in line with recent discussions within the European Commission, which called for a thorough revision of current regulations. These regulations are for a large part still informed by past debates concerning GMO debates and recombinant DNA research.

The current risk-based regulatory system has been developed over the last 40 years and has recently led to much discussion and dissatisfaction. We should start building a new system, which does not reproduce previous polemics. Besides looking at risks, a more comprehensive regulatory regime would integrate questions concerning sustainability, human rights, ethics and societal desirability. Governance experiments co-designed with societal actors are needed to gain insight into the contours of such a new regulatory landscape on synthetic biology or new biotechnologies, including the synthetic cell.

In summary, the panel advises that social and ethical issues should be addressed proactively and throughout the research process.

The development of synthetic cell research raises multiple social and ethical issues. These issues vary from questions about the technical feasibility of mimicking life, to questions about safety, intellectual property rights, and data management issues, e.g. data sharing and open science. Synthetic cell research also raises multiple governance questions, such as how to align synthetic cell technology with societal needs, how to ensure that the government has the capacity to properly embed emerging technology in society, and how to organise the interaction between science and society. These types of social, legal, and ethical issue should be addressed proactively and throughout the development process.

The members of the Future Panel

Fourteen experts accepted the invitation to be part of the Future Panel on Synthetic Life and participated during the panel meetings. A short resume of each panel member can be found below in alphabetical order.

Noelle Aarts

Noelle Aarts is a professor Socio-Ecological Interactions and director of the Institute for Science in Society (ISiS) at Radboud University in Nijmegen. Her research focusses on interactional processes for creating space for change towards socio-ecological transformations, developing insights into the interplay between everyday conversations and the wider structures and developments in society. ORCID ID: 0000-0001-5134-4004.

Saurabh Arora

Saurabh Arora works on the politics of sustainability at the Science Policy Research Unit of the University of Sussex (UK). ORCID ID: 0000-0003-1073-5564.

Roel Bovenberg

Roel Bovenberg is Senior Science Fellow Biotechnology at Royal DSM and honorary professor Synthetic Biology and Cell Engineering at the University of Groningen, with a special interest in the design and evolution of microbes for the fermentative production of bioproducts.

Marileen Dogterom

Marileen Dogterom is a university professor at the TU Delft and Medical Delta professor at Leiden University. She is internationally renowned expert in experimental cell biophysics with a pioneering track record in biophysical research of the microtubule cytoskeleton. Over the years, her group has systematically worked on increasing functional biological complexity in reconstitution experiments, which paved the way for her current and future ambition to build synthetic cells. She published ~100 papers in high-ranking physics and biology journals. Dogterom actively and frequently collaborates with leading national and international researchers in both physics and biology. Since 2017, she leads the Dutch Consortium BaSyC (Building a Synthetic Cell) and is one of the initiators of the European Synthetic Cell Initiative. ORCID ID: 0000-0002-8803-5261.

Joost Gerritsen

Joost Gerritsen is a privacy and data lawyer at Legal Beetle, The Netherlands. His legal expertise is primarily focused on the legal aspects of (emerging) technologies, such as AI, robotics and big data.

Phil Macnaghten

Phil Macnaghten is a Professor in the Knowledge, Technology and Innovation (KTI) group at Wageningen University. His PhD is from Exeter and he has held appointments at Lancaster, Durham and Campinas before joining Wageningen in 2015. His research background is in science and technology studies (STS) and sociology. His current research focus is on responsible innovation, gene editing and the governance of science.

Bert Poolman

Bert Poolman is a biochemist that is active in the field of synthetic biology, in particular the construction from molecular building blocks of complex cell-like systems. His research focuses on three central questions: what tasks should a living cell minimally perform and how this can be accomplished with a minimal set of components? How do molecules permeate biological membranes? How can one control the volume and physicochemistry of the cell? ORCID ID: 0000-0002-1455-531X

Zoë Robaey

Zoë Robaey is Assistant Professor in Ethics of Technology at the Philosophy Group of Wageningen University. Her work investigates moral responsibility under conditions of uncertainty in the field of biotechnology in agriculture. In 2019, she received a VENI grant from the Dutch Research Organization for her research on the virtues for innovation in practice. In this work, she combines conceptual and empirical investigations to develop a notion of responsibility under uncertainty that builds on the practices of both scientists and farmers. ORCID ID: 0000-0002-0501-2030

Steen Rasmussen

Steen Rasmussen, professor in physics and center director, works on creating minimal life from nonliving materials, as well as on how new technologies change what it means to be human. He spent 20 years at Los Alamos National Laboratory, USA. In Denmark he founded the FLinT and ISSP centers in 2008 and 2009 respectively. He co-founded the European Center for Living Technology in Venice, Italy, 2004, and he has been part of the Santa Fe Institute, USA, for 33 years. He has consulted on science and technology issues for the European Commission, the Danish Parliament, the German Bundestag, the US Congress, as well as private companies. ORCID ID: 0000-0002-3336-843X.

Guido Ruivenkamp

Emeritus Professor Guido Ruivenkamp investigates the interaction of societal transformations and biotech/genomics developments. He focuses on disconnecting contemporary agri/food biotech products from the asymmetric power relations inscribed in those products, aiming instead at a redesign that empowers communities striving for a more equitable and sustainable world. His critical re-constructivist approach to biopolitics emphasises commons-based knowledge practices.

Esther Thole

Esther Thole is a freelance science journalist and moderator based in The Netherlands and author of the 2018 book Makers van leven: hoe wetenschappers leven bouwen in het lab (Making life: how scientists build life in the lab). She mainly writes about the interface between chemistry and (synthetic) biology.

Georg Tremmel

Georg Tremmel has a background in Media Art and Bioinformatics, he is currently pursuing a PhD in Artistic Research at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. His artistic work focuses on the ethical, legal and societal implications of emerging biotechnologies and the relationships between human and non-human agencies. ORCID ID: 0000-0001-5706-8442

Cécile van der Vlugt

Cécile van der Vlugt is appointed as senior risk assessor at the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM). In that function she works on risk assessment and risk management issues concerning genetically modified organisms applied in contained use. As an expert on new biotechnological developments she advises the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management on emerging risks and safety measures of these new developments.

Tom Wakeford

Tom Wakeford works at ETC Group, which supports social movements to steer technologies towards the common good. ORCID ID: 0000-0002-4721-3658

Please note, two members of the Future Panel, Arora and Wakeford, contributed to the activities of the Future Panel, but disagreed with the way their contributions were combined with those of others in the final position paper to the extent that they asked to withdraw their names from the list of co-authors. This request was accepted. In Arora’s view, the paper's final version lacks substantive engagement with issues of pluralism and power, particularly from Southern and decolonial perspectives. Wakeford experienced a culture of scientism during the Panel meetings, and a lack of acknowledgement of people’s right to free, prior and informed consent.