Author(s): Deborah G. Johnson
Anne Shirley Carter Olsson Professor of Applied Ethics in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society in the School of Engineering and Applied Science of the University of Virginia
Two questions key to developing socially responsible synthetic biology:
Perhaps this is too obvious, but the central question has to do with understanding the uncertainties and risks of undertaking synthetic biology? Uncertainty is at the heart of anxieties about synthetic biology. Providing trustworthy accounts of the risk involved in this endeavor is important, but the daunting challenge is in managing the risks of use and misuse. In this sense, the big question is whether systems of accountability can be put in place that will protect humanity from the risks.
A second (more subtle) key question has to do with how synthetic biology is presented to the public. The meaning and significance of synthetic biology is, in some sense, still in the making. On the one hand, there is the worry that synthetic biology comes to be known as the equivalent of ‘Franken Food’; on the other hand, it is important that scientists and engineers do not mislead the public. The public is becoming increasingly mistrustful of science (as they should). Thus, the synthetic biology community should consider how synthetic biology is public understood; are they “crossing lines that have never been crossed before”? are they creating Frankenstein beings? Or what? They also have to be careful about not overestimating the benefits or underestimating the risks.
A personal reflection about the shape that collaborations between engineering ethics and an emerging technology like synthetic biology should take:
Whatever shape the collaboration takes, there has to be recognition that both synthetic biology and ethics are moving targets. Both are fluid. As a technology or technologies, synthetic biology, like all developing technologies, isn’t a fixed or already known set of techniques and know-how that studied in practice and regulated. Likewise, ethical concepts (in general and in engineering ethics) are also fluid. Although some fundamental ethical principles and concepts persist, their meaning often has variable interpretations and their application to new situations is often contested. This fluidity means that collaborating is a daunting challenge, though the collaboration offers the best opportunity for ethical perspectives to influence the development of the technology, i.e., while it is still in the early stages, while it is still ‘in the making’.
Ideally the shape of the collaboration would involve synthetic biologists taking the lead and viewing the collaboration with ethicists as an opportunity, not a threat. For this reason use of the phrase “ethical boundaries” is problematic. It implies that the role of ethics is to constrain science rather than be part of it or even to lead science. Science is a social endeavor (funded and directed by government and private organizations, consisting of beliefs and practices that change over time) and as such consideration of the social implications of any particular scientific enterprise should be understood as an essential part of the undertaking.
Ideally the collaboration would lead to the development of a synthetic biology community that would institute practices that involve ongoing evaluation of the field’s social implications. I draw here on Wetmore’s piece on automobile air bag performance monitoring; he uses this as an exemplary case of engineers who don’t abandon what they develop once it is put into the marketplace. They continue to track and monitor performance, and make recommendations for future development [See: J. M. Wetmore, Engineering with Uncertainty: Monitoring Air Bag Performance. Science and Engineering Ethics 14 (2) 2008]. Ongoing monitoring and a system of accountability for the field of synthetic biology is what should be sought by the collaboration (and, of course, the monitoring should be done by those who do not have financial interests in the development of the field).
What activities and materials should have priority in ethics training in synthetic biology?
I don’t know the answer to this question. All I know is that the field of engineering ethics makes use of a set of concepts, a language, and lessons learned from past cases that allows one to think about and see technology and engineering in a particular way. The lens of ethics allows one to examine the implications of technological development with an eye to human values and to individual and social well-being. Engineering ethics is a discourse; a discourse involving engineering ethics and synthetic biology could facilitate an understanding of the implications of synthetic biology that could in term influence how the technology develops.