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Synberc response to IAP statement on synthetic biology

Author: 
Kevin Costa

Submitted to the Inter Academy Panel on May 23, 2014.

Professor ter Meulen,

We respond on behalf of the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center, an NSF-supported research consortium. Since 2006, Synberc has helped shape the field of synthetic biology, developed foundational technologies, educated emerging leaders, and promoted the responsible development of the field.

Synberc supports the Inter Academy Panel’s recent statement on realizing the potential of synthetic biology. In particular:

1. We endorse IAP recommendations on the relationship between foundational advances and practical applications. Much more foundational research is still needed to understand the biological and genomic underpinnings of synthetic biology that will allow us to address a broad range of challenges. We must continue to develop sound principles for assembling biological systems across different contexts, construct libraries of well-characterized components, and create the tools to design, build and test biological systems. Importantly, we must also develop the tools and technologies to provide policymakers and the public with the information needed to make science-based policy decisions about risk and uncertainty of real-world applications.

2. We agree with the need to systematically prepare researchers to address the full spectrum of effects of synthetic biology. The next generation of biotechnologists will require not only extraordinary technical foundations, but also serious education on ethical, legal, societal and environmental issues, if the field is to develop justly. Synberc’s Policy & Practices program is working to that end by putting into practice systems to influence the selection and conduct of projects within Synberc. It also leads efforts with our public agencies and company partners to develop policies on governance and risk. Within Synberc-supported iGEM, the Policy & Practices program is helping to cultivate an ethos of responsibility and care among young synthetic biologists. The lessons learned within these efforts can and should be applied within other, broader contexts.

3. We must expand the international dialogue to include diverse academic and public participants. Directing the research toward tangible social goods will require an active process involving academics across many disciplines, industry practitioners, funding agencies, as well as the workers, consumers, families, and patients who we hope to benefit. The field will develop justly only if practitioners listen carefully and respond to public concerns about improving regulations and sharing benefits. Scientists and non-scientists alike must be clear about the ethical issues created by synthetic biology, as well as the critical human needs that this biotechnology can help to address.

4. We endorse the IAP call for a global policy and framework to support responsible science. Funding for the U.S.-based Synberc consortium is scheduled to come to a close at a time when it’s more important than ever to strengthen educational programs, support foundational research, and create inclusive venues on an international scale. We believe now is the time to expand this model into a larger and more inclusive organization to advance scientific and social progress. We would ask the major U.S. funding agencies (NSF, NIH, DOE, DARPA, and others) and their international counterparts to join with existing technologists, industrial partners, and civil society in committing to fund a long-term internationally coordinated program. The organization would serve as the primary conduit to coordinate international efforts and include an iterative roadmapping process to focus on global and topical issues important to and inclusive of both scientists and the public. The exact contours of this organization are to be determined, but models could include the Computing Community Consortium (www.ccc.org), the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors (www.itrs.net), and the International Society for Stem Cell Research (http://www.isscr.org/).

We appreciate the IAP’s statement on realizing the global potential of synthetic biology. There is an undeniable need for a coordinated ecosystem of people and institutions if we are to responsibly advance this open and distributed technology for maximum public benefit. We look forward to working with members of the IAP and many, many others to sustain, promote and grow that ecosystem.

Signed,

Jay D. Keasling (Director), UC Berkeley
J. Christopher Anderson, UC Berkeley
Adam Arkin , UC Berkeley
George Church, Harvard Medical School
Tanja Kortemme, UC San Francisco
Natalie Kuldell, MIT
Wendell Lim, UC San Francisco
Susan Marqusee, UC Berkeley
Kenneth Oye, MIT
Megan Palmer, Stanford University
Kristala Jones Prather, MIT
Pamela Silver, Harvard Medical School
Christopher Voigt, MIT
Ron Weiss, MIT