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Call for views on emerging biotechnologies

18 April 2011
By Professor Michael Moran
WJM Mackenzie Professor of Government, University of Manchester
Appeared in BioNews 604
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has launched a consultation on the ethical issues raised by emerging biotechnology. Following discussions about the ethical issues raised by synthetic biology, nanotechnology, stem cell research, genomics and other fields besides, the Council realised that these issues could be profitably examined together. This led the Council to set up a working party, which I am chairing, to examine how society and policy makers respond to new biotechnologies and how benefits from these technologies can be secured in an ethical manner.

Although we believe we can recognise an emerging biotechnology when we see one, it is not easy to corral them into a neat definition. The working party has spent many hours discussing these technologies and mapping their relationships. We have identified some common features that many emerging biotechnologies share, including their capacity to disturb established values and disrupt industries, and incite dispute. We have also distinguished between a technique with a specific use (such as IVF), and a programme that may draw on many techniques (such as human enhancement). We suggest emerging biotechnologies can range between these distinctions.

The task of identifying an emerging technology is easy in retrospect, but we need to become more effective at identifying emerging biotechnologies at their earliest appearance. Moreover, we need to identify the regulatory problems they pose, and the common solutions to those problems - if they exist. The emergence of many biotechnologies creates repercussions for ethics, policy and society. These, in turn, affect how that technology develops, its applications, and the consequences - in particular, the benefits - that may follow. The often-used example of genetically-modified (GM) crops usefully illustrates this point: public opposition to GM crops in Europe had decisive consequences, whereas there was comparatively little opposition in North America where they are now widely planted.

In the consultation paper, we draw attention to how social, cultural, economic, geographical and political factors might influence the development and application of biotechnologies. These may include philosophical, legal and religious traditions, or the extent to which markets, public funding decisions or governance frameworks reflect cultural attitudes or standards of behaviour. We are also interested in the influence of political systems and the internationalisation of R&D on the development of biotechnologies.

Our main focus, however, is on questions of ethics and public policy. We have arranged some of these under a number of headings, but our intention is not to supply an exhaustive list. Instead, we are hoping that our suggestions will inspire or provoke people. The issues we are interested in include:

  • Benefits and harms of biotechnologies, including those arising from misuse or deliberate threats. For example, improvements to health or damage to the environment;
  • Uncertainty and risk. For example, how we should act in situations where we have incomplete knowledge or what difficulties arise in incorporating unknown risks into decision making processes;
  • Precaution and innovation. For example, how a precautionary approach might threaten or guide innovation;
  • Ownership and control. For example, the design and effect of measures to protect intellectual property and constraints on these, such as ethical restrictions on patenting;
  • Markets and the economy. For example, how some technologies might disrupt markets or how economic forces might shape technological development;
  • The notion of progress. For example, whether and how we might identify and measure progress as a result of technological development;
  • Social and cultural impacts. For example, how to identify and pursue the most desirable distribution of goods between individuals, groups or generations, and whether some technologies inherently widen the gap between the rich and the poor;
  • International aspects. For example, whether some technologies might help or harm developing economies or otherwise affect relations between different peoples and societies; and
  • Technological diversity. For example, what benefits or dangers might arise as a result of technological standardisation, or the existence of a plurality or technological pathways.

We will consider what appropriate policy responses to these issues might look like: whether regulatory schemes can anticipate emerging biotechnologies and whether it may be appropriate to have one or a number of pre-defined approaches or tools.

A key focus of our deliberations is likely to be on the impact of voices outside the laboratory or factory on emerging biotechnologies. We are therefore keen to understand the role and value of public engagement in emerging biotechnologies. We set out to understand how and why, for example, public engagement has developed from lecturing to conversing with the public, and how far upstream public engagement can and should navigate.

Our consultation poses several specific questions, but respondents have considerable freedom in how they answer these. In particular, we are interested in concrete examples. And we are open to being told we are asking the wrong questions.

We are keen to hear from as wide a range of respondents as possible. We especially welcome responses from those involved in developing emerging biotechnologies, with an interest in or concern about the use of emerging biotechnologies, and those involved in public engagement.

The consultation paper and response form can be downloaded from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics website. The consultation is open until 15 June.

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