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Workshop format for researchers on safety in biotechnology

22 August 2022

Photo: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock

Wetenschappers aan het werk

Together with TU Delft, the Rathenau Instituut has developed a workshop format for researchers working with new biotechnologies. The workshop gives researchers insight into possible risks, and how to reduce or circumvent these.

In short:

  • In biotechnology, often the rules and regulations can’t keep up with developments. Because researchers often work with new techniques, it is important that they think carefully about possible risks.
  • The developed format gives researchers tools to organise their own workshops with a wide range of participants. This makes it possible to assess not only technical-related risks, but also other types of risks.
  • Through knowledge exchange, all participants gain knowledge from other people's fields, and this creates an understanding of each other's values and perspectives on risk-related issues.

The workshop format was developed within the Tools for Translation of Risk Research into Policies and Practices (T-TRIPP) project. The T-TRIPP project has shown that there is still too little cooperation between research and policy. It appears that research and policy sometimes do not understand each other well, which can lead to frustration. For example, researchers and policy officers sometimes do not know what the other is  doing, or there are differences in the assessments of emerging, new risks that accompany new research.  To reduce this tension and encourage cooperation, we have developed a workshop format for researchers. The workshop facilitates interaction between different stakeholders, and helps to increase understanding of each other's values and perspectives on risk-related issues. In addition, the workshop provides researchers with insight into both existing and potential new risks in their research, and solutions are arrived at with all participants that reduce or circumvent the identified risks. 

Let’s Talk About Risks!

Scientists may encounter certain risks when designing their research or writing a research proposal. The assessments of these risks often goes beyond technical issues. For example, social risks may also play a role, or insight needs to be gained into which research design or experiments are appropriate in order to reduce uncertainties prior to or during the research. Researchers cannot be expected to solve these issues alone. Therefore, the workshop offers researchers a tool to discuss these issues with various stakeholders from other (research) areas and to jointly arrive at risk-reducing strategies with, for example, ecologists, toxicologists, (bio)ethicists, social scientists and policy makers.

The issue that researchers have encountered while setting up their research serves as a case study in the workshop. This issue is presented and explained to all participants at the beginning of the workshop. What area of the case study lacks knowledge and information? This forms the basis for the group discussions during the workshop. 

In short, the workshop consists of three parts:

  1. Gain insight into different estimates of uncertain risks. Which risks are identified, on what basis, what is the degree and nature of the uncertainty?
  2. Defining anticipatory strategies to reduce or circumvent existing and emerging risks.
  3. Determine what is needed to implement the defined strategies in research practices.

1: Identifying and prioritising risks
In the first step, participants discuss in small groups which (new) risks they think might arise from the case study. In addition, the potential impact of these possible risks is assessed, with each participant arguing from his/her own expertise and sharing knowledge. These findings are then discussed together, with each group presenting its findings and arguments to the other groups. Are all the findings realistic, and can the participants come to an agreement?

2: Defining risk-reducing strategies
The second step consists of devising strategies that can lower the previously defined risks, or even avoid them altogether. One strategy could be to choose another (host) organism, to use another technique, or to genetically restrict an organism to prevent it from surviving outside the lab (for example by making it dependent on a certain nutrient medium). Each group discusses the possible strategies first with each other, and then in plenary. In this way, the group comes to an overview of which strategies are the easiest to apply, or the most efficient.

3: Design and research adjustments
Once the participants in step two have agreed on which strategies should be used, they will work together to see how these can be incorporated into the design of the case study. What other design choices should be made, or do we perhaps need specific experiments to gather more information? These outcomes provide researchers with insight into possible adjustments of their research in order to pursue safety in the best possible way. 

The format and script for this workshop are based on five online workshops that were organised between March 2021 and February 2022 with participants from various fields. The workshop can be organised both physically and online. The script provides practical tips on how to best organise this workshop and what preparations are needed. 


Other resources on biosafety

Within the T-TRIPP project, in addition to the workshop, three 'serious games' have been developed, which can be played both independently and as a supplement to the workshop. For example, one of the games can be played prior to the workshop to get the participants in the right mood. The game allows participants to get to know each other informally, which can contribute to a culture of openness and trust during the workshop itself. In addition, the Rathenau Instituut will be publishing the report 'Together for Biosafety' (Samen voor Bioveiligheid). This report provides insight into the interaction between researchers and policy makers in the field of biosafety, and advises how this mutual learning process can be strengthened. 

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