Synthetic biology and ethics: Building public trustJulian Kinderlerer, President, European Group on Ethics, Professor, Intellectual Property Law, University of Cape Town, South Africa, Professor, Biotechnology & Society, Delft University of Technology, NetherlandsThe science of synthetic biology has become of great interest in the last few years, with major studies being commissioned to examine the implications of this new technology. In 2009, President Barosso, President of the European Commission, requested an Opinion of the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE) on the ethics of synthetic biology (EGE, 2009). In this request he indicated that “the debate about the legitimacy of engineering new life forms has mainly focused on safety issues and a work on the ethical, legal and social implications that may derive from this specific use of biotechnology is still missing.” In US President Obama’s letter to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (2010), he asked for a consideration of “the potential medical, environmental, security and other benefits of this field of research as well as any potential health, security and other risks.” The issues had been highlighted in May 2010 “by the announcement that scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute had created the world’s first self-replicating synthetic genome (human-made from chemical parts) in a bacterial cell of a different species” (Gibson et al., 2010).The European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC, 2010) considered the scientific and governance implications of synthetic biology and reported on ‘Realising European Potential in Synthetic Biology: Scientific Opportunities and Good Governance.’ It is therefore clear that the technologies and science involved in what is termed ‘synthetic biology’ are raising major issues, at least within international political circles. Building public confidence in the governance of synthetic biology by following ethical principles and standards is critical. But what are the issues, and why is there concern?Download the article.
Research integrity and scientific misconduct are issues of global concern. Science itself is a global enterprise. Academic research is increasingly international, as communication technology enables worldwide collaboration. The trustworthiness of scientific findings is fundamental to the progress of science everywhere. Falsification of records or results, dishonesty, misrepresentation and other inappropriate acts all compromise science. They waste scarce resources that could be used for legitimate scientific research and jeopardize future funding of science by government and private organizations.Certain aspects of cross-national research make concerns about integrity even more critical. Collaborators from different countries may work under different laws, regulations, customs and assumptions concerning the conduct of research. What is acceptable in one country may be illegal in another. At present, however, there is no organization or other body with global responsibility for research integrity. There is no worldwide agreement on what constitutes research integrity or, in fact, how the term "integrity" should be understood, given that it cannot be translated directly into some other languages. Likewise, scientific misconduct is open to interpretation, as countries exhibit different levels of tolerance for plagiarism or inaccurate authorship lists.
Innovation has become a buzzword in the realm of international development over the past decade. Major funders such as the United State Agency for International Development (USAID) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) support ‘innovation labs’, where resources and expertise are focused on asking new research questions that build on past successes and failures. Non-governmental organisations around the world facilitate and emphasise local innovations to meet local needs, in an effort to generate new ideas that are appropriate and relevant to specific places. These and other approaches to innovation in international development are influenced by the private enterprise model of start-up firms in the information technology sector, where innovation is seen to be a collaborative process that is constantly working to adapt and improve existing things, systems and ideas. As Fabian and Fabricant highlight, however, the orientation toward creative destruction in technology innovation, where change is constant and “failing quickly” yields further innovation, does not reflect the ethical and practical realities of research and programming in international development, where human well-being is at stake.
The view that scientists are, in general, trustworthy and ethically sound, and that agricultural research leading to new technological advances is intrinsically good has been altered and more so since the advent of genetic engineering. This has culminated in an ever growing societal interest in agricultural practices and their consequences, thereby posing new challenges for agricultural research.
Should scientists contribute to research that improves the conversion of food crops into biofuels, if they know that in the short term this will lead to an increase in hunger? Should researchers work on developing non-sustainable irrigation projects that provide short term relief but do not address the real needs of communities for water for sustaining agricultural production? Should scientists conduct experiment trials with new foods and drugs using human subjects in poor countries where the policy, regulatory and legislative frameworks governing such trials do not exist?