In a speech to the Royal Society the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, has set out what he thinks are the key areas of science that can drive economic growth. One of these areas is synthetic biology, and Osborne announced in his speech that the BBSRC will be dishing out an extra £20 million in grants to synthetic biologists over the coming months.
In a happy coincidence the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) hosted a debate yesterday looking at the policy challenges that synthetic biology is heralding in. These are many and multi-faceted, but one key question concerns the precautionary principle: the idea that scientists should have to be pretty confident that their research won’t have any nasty, unintended consequences before they press ahead with it. Of course, the precautionary principle is rather un-workable in practice. Ehsan Masood, editor of Research Fortnight, and chair of the RSC’s debate asked the panellists: “If we knew then what we know now about the internal combustion engine, would we have commercialised it in the same way?” A fascinating – but ultimately hypothetical – question.
Daisy Ginsburg, a designer who works at the interface of art with science, and specifically with synthetic biology, said that scientific and technological advances have an inevitability about them. “We know now that engines contribute to global warming, but there are no signs of us abandoning our cars,” she said.
The thing is that cars are useful. And likewise, the promise of synthetic biology will probably prove too great to abandon – the idea of constructing new wheat crops which are invulnerable to pests (and can be, say, 40% more productive) is certainly attractive. And in any case, Osborne has put the money on the table now. So the question has morphed from, ‘should we try it’, to ‘how can we do it right?’ On this front, a big concern is the public perception of synthetic biology. GM technologies, although used for food production in many other countries, are unpopular here in the UK; the public basically refuse to buy them. So if the communication of the science goes awry, is there a chance that synthetic biology could simply be dubbed a Frankenstein technology, and go the same way as GM?
Robert Edwards, a professor of biology at the University of York, had a sensible suggestion. “The key is to take small steps”, he said. We don’t start with synthetic cucumbers, we introduce technology slowly, and try to keep people informed and engaged as things develop. The starting point should be things like building microorganisms which are programmed to pump out small molecule herbicides, he suggested.
The BBSRC seem to be following this kind of advice in their newly announced grant awards. Only one out of their six funded projects concerns a synthetic food crop. The rest are about developing methodologies or making new microbes which can convert carbon monoxide and other raw materials into biofuels or other useful chemicals.
So a middle way consisting of small steps might be the right approach. Dek Woolfson, a protein chemist at the University of Bristol said this was only sensible really. We have a responsibility to investigate new technologies if we think they can solve important and intractable problems, he said. And the fundamental research that does this investigation, by its very nature, will move forward little by little.
“It boils down to Feynman’s famous quote,” said Woolfson. “What I can not create, I do not understand.” And surely he’s right? How will we ever know what the benefits of synthetic biology are, let alone the dangers, if we don’t at least give it a shot?
IMAGE: Oskay, flickr.