November 15, 2012 by IPAlchemist
Last night I went to the RSC for another of the series of events on chemistry policy, following the two last month that I wrote about on this blog. This time, the subject was “Synthetic Biology: challenges and opportunities for the UK”.
It was another great event, but quite different from the previous ones. It was not about an individual project, unlike previously where each lecture had focused on a particular molecule (one pharmaceutical and one agrochemical). And the format was quite different too – a largish panel each spoke for about 5 minutes, and then there were a series of questions from the floor.
I was very gratified that on this occasion Twitter was encouraged, and we were provided with a hashtag #synbio2012. (Usually, in the Chemistry Centre, we are told to turn off our mobile phones because they interfere with the sound recording equipment). If you want a blow-by-blow account of the event, a search on that hashtag should work well (for a while) as there were a number of professional reporters and writers present who are highly skilled in the art of real-time tweeting (unlike your humble servant).
The event was technologically ambitious, being live-webcast, and having a live video link with a second audience at the University of Bristol. This impressive setup only failed slightly sometimes when there was a strong echo from the Bristol venue.
The impressive chairman was Dr Ehsan Masood – Editor, Research Fortnight.
Ehsan is a science writer, journalist and broadcaster. Since 2009 he has been Editor of Research Fortnight and also teaches a course in international science policy at Imperial College London. As well as writing for Prospect magazine, The Times, Guardian and Le Monde, he writes and presents programmes for BBC Radio.
The panel in London consisted of:
Dr Lionel Clarke – Chairman, UK Synthetic Biology Roadmap Coordination Group
Lionel chairs a group of independent experts who have set out A Synthetic Biology Roadmap for the UK. Its recommendations include investing in multidisciplinary centres, an annual forum, and funding competitions to support the development of novel applications. It emphasises responsible research to support the UK taking an internationally leading role. Dr Clarke joined Shell in 1981 and has been responsible for planning and delivering strategic research programmes there for more than ten years.
Professor Robert Edwards – University of York and Chief Scientist, Food and Environment Research Agency
Professor Edwards is the Chief Scientist for FERA and a Chair in Crop Protection in the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (University of York). His research focuses on countering herbicide resistance in weeds, wheat biotechnology and biorefining. His group have discovered two new classes of plant glutathione transferases and identified their roles in soy, wheat and maize herbicide metabolism.
Daisy Ginsberg – Synthetic biology writer and commentator
Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg is a designer, artist and writer, interrogating science, technology and new roles for design in a biotech future. As Design Fellow on Synthetic Aesthetics, an NSF/EPSRC-funded project at Stanford University and the University of Edinburgh, she is curating an international programme researching synthetic biology, art and design, investigating how we might ‘design nature’.
Helena Paul – Co-director, Econexus
Helena is a co-director of EcoNexus, an organisation analysing developments in science and technology and their impacts on environment and society. She is also involved in the international negotiations of the UN Conventions on Biological Diversity and Climate Change. Dr Paul is currently monitoring UK research on synthetic biology, including consultation with the public and the conduct of scientists in connection with scientific uncertainty.
Described as the “chair” in Bristol, but in the event acting more like a further panelist (which was welcome, as he spoke very well indeed) was Professor Dek Woolfson – University of Bristol
Dek has been a Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Bristol since 2005. His research group’s focus is the prediction and design of protein folds and their application in bionanotechnology and synthetic biology. In 2011 Professor Woolfson won the RSC Protein and Peptide Science group’s Medimmune Protein and Peptide Science award, which is awarded in recognition of excellence in any area of protein and peptide science.
It will probably be somewhat apparent from the biographies that all except Helena pretty much assumed that synthetic biology was A GOOD THING. Their discourse focused on whether it would achieve what was hoped of it, whether it had been over-hyped, and how to foster public engagement and acceptance. They were referring to (and buoyed up by) George Osborne’s speech from last week, on importance of synthetic biology to the UK, as for example reported in The Guardian.
Helena was a lone voice advocating the precautionary principle. While the others accepted that there was a serious public engagement issue to avoid a repeat of GM crops being labelled “Frankenfoods”, none of them to my mind seriously engaged with people who genuinely consider that with biological developments we need to set the bar of confidence that no harm can possibly result at a very high level indeed. It seemed as though Helena and the others were simply taking part in parallel events that were not interacting with each other.
To be clear, I do not agree with the precautionary principle being applied to developments in synthetic biology, but neither do I think that we can just carry on talking as though its proponents are not in the room. So I used my question to ask:
Is there any way to bridge gap between proponents of precautionary principle and those who do not espouse it?
Even this did not really result in what I would regard as real engagement. There was some discussion of “what would have happened if the precautionary principle had been applied to motorised transport”, which is a good point, but, as Helena did point out, ultimately irrelevant as people who advocate the precautionary principle consider that there is an issue with organisms (which are replicating) that render them fundamentally different, and in need of a far, far higher level of regulatory caution than any other technology.
My own “what if”, although equally irrelevant ultimately, is the story of CFCs. They were brought in to replace the toxic and dangerous refrigerants that were used in domestic fridges, but turned out, completely unexpectedly, to harm the ozone layer. But this was not an irreversible effect, and it is in principle possible to stop using them and return to something approximating to the status quo ante.
Having squandered my question on this issue, I did not get a chance to talk about the IP issues, although I did tweet a little on the subject. A sensible question was asked about the effect and role of IP on synthetic biology by Dylan Williams (@vitamindyl), but it did not really result in very informative answers, and I regret that I was not able to dive in.
A particularly regrettable response was from Helena, who said that she worried that patents would be used by companies to tie up the technology and hide what they were doing. Of course fundamental to the concept of patenting is disclosure, and so use of the patent system will actually help, not hinder, dissemination of the technology and publication of what is being done.
There was some talk that the “biobricks” might be open source. This may or may not turn out to be true – it might happen, but there would be no way to ensure that it happened universally.
My expectation is that the basic rules of patenting – an invention must be new and involve an inventive step to be patentable, plus the requirements of disclosure and to be not contrary to morality, will turn out to be quite sufficient to deal with the issues presented by synthetic biology, and I do not see that the discipline presents any special new issues that would require dealing with in a different way. I certainly don’t expect that it will need its own separate legal framework. How then companies choose to use IP Law – in a collaborative way or in a proprietary way – or, as is most likely, as a mixture of the two – remains to be seen. But I am confident that the patent system will provide within itself the necessary flexibility to underpin whatever approaches are adopted.
A final observation. It is curious that no-one actually defined what they meant by “synthetic biology”. While I heard “it is not genetic engineering”, and I heard various qualities attributed to it, no-one actually said what they considered the term to encompass. Since the semantic meaning of the term is rather vague, if we are going to discuss issues like what will it do and how should it be regulated, I think we do need precision about the scope of the terminology. I slightly formed the impression, although I could well be mistaken, that not all the panelists and question askers were assuming the same meaning.
Final verdict – a fascinating evening and I look forward to another.