How valuable are emerging biotechnologies? Of all the questions about the prospects of the life sciences, this is the one that UK policy makers seem most eager to answer.
The exact quantification is no doubt imponderable but there is nevertheless an assumption that the final answer will be of prodigious magnitude and can be given in economic terms. Look at almost any recent strategy or document from a government department, research council, agency or institute concerned with civil research and innovation in the life sciences and you will find the link between domestic research and national economic growth made explicitly, in bold text, front and centre. Biotechnology research is increasingly presented to the world in terms of its anticipated contribution to economic growth. Important choices that determine what biotechnologies are researched, and which ones emerge, are framed in this way too.
The influence of this mode of thinking can also be detected, in different ways, in systems such as those that govern academic research project funding and those that govern the support for universities more generally, through the Research Excellence Framework. It is inevitably dominant, although increasingly unalloyed by other considerations, in commercial research settings. Whether reluctantly or fatalistically, life sciences researchers are obliged to play along. We have become inured to the rhetoric of impact, and especially of economic impact.
How decisions are 'framed' is a key concern in the new Nuffield Council on Bioethics report, 'Emerging Biotechnologies: technology, choice and the public good' (1). This refers to both the context in which novel biotechnologies are represented and how the available possibilities are constrained in practice. Thus, cell reconstruction to avoid mitochondrial disease – to take the subject of the previous Nuffield Council report (2) – might be represented as an early therapeutic intervention, on the one hand, or as germline genetic engineering, on the other. Socially, its meaning is ambiguous. But how this ambiguity is resolved may affect the funding it receives, how it is regulated and whether its use is publicly accepted.
How we think and talk about emerging biotechnologies, and the kinds of values we draw on, constrain the possible outcomes of decisions and, in turn, the kinds of technologies we get. But elective conditions such as funding, regulation and acceptance are facilitating rather than determining conditions. We know that the emergence of genuinely new biotechnologies rarely follows a predictable or linear path. There are always uncertainties and hidden constraints to be addressed. Even relatively well-established industries such as the pharmaceutical sector, which provide a template for the assumptions that underlie much research policy, are struggling to generate value from research investment, despite the favourable alignment of conditions.
This just serves to cast in a harsher light the conclusion that economic arguments for supporting research may not be well-founded. Take the ubiquitous – because frequently recycled – estimate that the global synthetic biology industry will be worth $100 billion by 2020, with the UK assuming an entitlement to about 10 percent of that. As the Nuffield report suggests, if this is to be the case, one would expect all the research and most of the development to already have been done.
To make such an observation is not 'anti-science'. It is a plea for more science, certainly a more diverse research portfolio, and more rigorous reasoning, but also for other kinds of thought to be applied to research policy. Life sciences research is about more than economic growth and shareholder value. According to the Nuffield report, a more sophisticated way of appreciating the diversity of values that are relevant to emerging biotechnologies is needed. But this must be coupled with the cultivation of mechanisms and behaviours that bring these values into play in determining the conditions that shape and select biotechnologies.
Developing a discourse that mediates diverse values and cultivating opportunities for engagement that can bring it to bear are key elements of what the Nuffield report describes as a 'public ethics'. This is not a project to identify yet another set of values, by which we should be operating as a society, in response to shared threats to health and wellbeing from climate change, resource scarcity and financial crisis. The report explicitly resists such a totalising impulse. It is rather about reconnecting different 'value discourses' when considering potential technological benefits and uncertainties, while setting particular technological choices in the context of wider questions of social priorities. In this way we are compelled to ask not 'how valuable are biotechnologies?' but 'how are biotechnologies valuable?'
The report offers both a stimulus and resource to begin thinking in this way. Over the next few months, the Nuffield Council intends to hold a number of meetings and seminars with key individuals and organisations, to bring together people across disciplinary, professional and public roles, in a model of the kind of 'discourse ethics' we argue for in the report. If you’d like to be involved, the Council would like to hear from you.