How can we develop new technology in such a way that the benefits are enjoyed by society as a whole and not just by a small group? That, in a nutshell, is the central question in the position paper of the Future Panel on Synthetic Life. The Rathenau Instituut and Radboud University supported the fourteen experts who thought about this questionas was part of a major Dutch research project on the creation of a living cell.
If we want to have control over the effects of major technological breakthroughs, it is crucial that we start thinking early on about the most effective way to implement a new technology.
Building an independent living cell from scratch is not possible right now, but may be possible in the future.
Not only does the future panel make recommendations, but it also presents dilemmas and challenges.
Building a Synthetic Cell is the name of a major research programme of six Dutch research institutes. Since 2017, they have been working on developing an artificial cell that is alive and can reproduce on its own. The programme, best known by its acronym (BaSyC), involves technoscientific research that aims to gain more insight into the origins of life.
The work within BaSyC is divided into seven parts. One of these parts revolves around the philosophical and ethical aspects of developing a synthetic cell and the public debate about it. One component is the Future Panel on Synthetic Life, which was set up by scientists from Radboud University and the Rathenau Instituut. In 2020 and 2021 the panel of fourteen members met three times, partly online due to COVID-19.
The internet as an example
The aim of the panel was to draw up a first provisional agenda for a political, social, and scientific debate on the synthetic cell. The panel looked at the potential impact of the synthetic cell on society. It noted that its future consequences will depend very much on who shapes science and technology. To ensure that the development of a synthetic cell is not dominated by a small, powerful group, the panel emphasised the importance of early involvement of a wide range of political and social actors in its development. By making it a joint undertaking, research would be more responsive to society's concerns and expectations.
During their meetings, the panel members repeatedly referred to the development of the internet. Initially, politicians and citizens mainly saw its positive possibilities. It would become an open platform, accessible to all. That it did not quite work out that way was because developments were poorly regulated by the government, so that they could be controlled by a small group of high-tech companies with interests that differed from those of society as a whole.
Challenges and dilemmas
The history of the internet also shows that technical and scientific innovations can bring about major changes at breakneck speed. Therefore, according to the panel, it is crucial that we start thinking early on about how a new technology can become a joint project that contributes to realising the wishes of society.
The panel acknowledges that this is easier said than done. The report's four recommendations are therefore preceded by four challenges and eight dilemmas. How do you ensure that scientists can share their knowledge with society, when the companies and institutions that employ them want to protect their discoveries as much as possible? How do you involve the public and politicians in such a way that they inspire experiments and discoveries, instead of putting the brakes on? And if the existing power structures do not change, important new discoveries such as the synthetic cell will only reinforce them, and perhaps even strengthen them.
The panel would like to see the synthetic cell contribute to a sustainable society in which the advantages and disadvantages that the synthetic cell would bring with it are equally divided. It is important that society is involved in the research into the synthetic cell. The scientific world will, therefore, have to be more open to society. New forms of steering developments will have to be developed. This could be done by reserving part of the funding for elements that society considers important. For example, for research into nanotechnology, the government has already demanded that researchers spend 10% of their funding on risk research.
The presentation of the position paper by the future panel will take place at an online meeting on 12 May. Together with Radboud University, the Rathenau Instituut will conduct follow-up research into how new technologies can be developed in such a way that they promote sustainability.
On May 12, 2022, the Future Panel met for the fourth time. This was the final meeting in a series of four meetings in which fourteen international experts discussed the social aspects associated with the development of the synthetic cell. Because it was the last meeting, a wider group of stakeholders was invited to participate in the meeting.
Building a synthetic cell from scratch is not possible at this point. However, scientists have succeeded in making parts of a synthetic cell, such as the DNA, the membrane, and the metabolic process. In the near future, they will try to make a whole cell from these parts. The way in which scientists work on the synthetic cell within BaSyC is therefore referred to as a bottom-up approach.
Scientists in the United States and elsewhere are working on making a cell using the opposite approach. In this top-down approach, the starting point is an existing cell from which all non-essential parts are removed. The American J. Craig Venter Institute claims to have already developed a self-dividing synthetic cell in this way.
However, neither approach is expected to yield advanced life. A simple single-celled bacterium would already be a huge scientific breakthrough.
The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science is helping to pay for the BaSyC research through a so-called Gravity Grant, which is intended for excellent science and technology.
Prefer to listen to the synthetic cell?
Designer Mies Loogman and the Rathenau Instituut made a podcast series about the development of the synthetic cell and the various questions it raises. The aim is to involve a larger audience in the synthetic cell in an accessible way. The three episodes last fifteen to twenty minutes. They can be listened to here. The installation that Mies Loogman made for the Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven was also intended for a wider audience. There, researchers from the Rathenau Instituut talked about the synthetic cell with visitors in the autumn of 2021.