At a recent meeting of the synthetic biology community, SB6.0, researchers from around the world descended on Imperial College London to discuss the state of affairs in standardising the engineering of biology. Embedded into the programme of events were some discussions of knowledge translation and that most recent of neoliberal terms for technoscience governance, ‘responsible innovation’.
Jack Stilgoe, an STS scholar at UCL, has been one important figure in cementing the use of this term in governance circles, which – understandably – both excites and troubles him. He, along with many of us interested in the sociology of knowledge, have seen responsible innovation be rapidly taken-up like a standardised plasmid by a competent cell. As biologists and sociologists alike will tell you, though: (cellular) context is important. So what happens in different spaces to the terminology and practices of responsible innovation? We don’t know as yet, but synbio is an interesting and important place to watch some of this unfold.
Responsibility sounds like a good word to hear in this context, and when coupled to innovation it promises perhaps a more critical engagement with the relationships between industry and academy. Synthetic biology is certainly a space in which these relations are currently being negotiated, whether in the production of artemisinin or the development of novel forms of pedagogy and sharing.
One of the primary tenets of responsible innovation, whatever form it might take in different sociotechnical spaces, is that innovators (whether they’re natural scientists, engineers, industrialists or so on) have to engage substantively with the concerns of publics. This means more than listening. It means changing what you’re doing and what you plan to do in your innovations by virtue of those engagements.
Scientists tend to think that public actors are mostly worried about frankenfoods and grey goo, assuming that publics misunderstand science and thus hold incorrect opinions about its implications. Indeed (though I’m so tired of saying it I want to scream) I still spend significant amounts of time in meetings explaining this assumption, challenging it and showing how alternative accounts of public actors are far more fruitful for engagement and – dare I say it – for science as well.
How is responsible innovation being adopted in synbio? In perhaps the most prominent example, the findings of the synthetic biology dialogue report are not so much integrated into research practices but are instead regularly trotted out at conferences and in interviews as evidence that synthetic biologists and the RCUK are doing responsible innovation. It becomes used as a sign of responsibility but not a provocation to it. Some of the primary findings of that dialogue continue to be overlooked when synthetic biologists talk about their work. There’s still a huge reliance on the idea that public actors are largely troubled by the objects of science: in this context, engineered microorganisms. Contrary to this assumption, the dialogue showed that the people involved were not only interested in the objects of science but also significantly concerned with the processes and imaginaries of scientific innovations. One important question was about the use of public money to fund synthetic biology; the danger being that scientists could get too cosy with industry, patent everything, and focus narrowly on making a successful, profit-generating innovation.
Something of a stir was caused at the SB6.0 conference by activists from Luddites200 and Biofuelwatch handing out an open letter to the delegates as they entered the building. There were some conversations and tweets about it, and Tom Ellis from Imperial posed the questions from the activists’ letter to the panel on responsible innovation. I think this is a signal that synthetic biologists are interested in engaging with a debate about public and NGO concerns.
However, the letter seems largely to have been understood only as an uninformed attack on synthetic biology. For example, Alex Taylor wrote a quick blog post about the letter, where he noted how it raised interesting points for discussion. But he went on to deal mostly with the points he could transform into technical questions, or took up assertions in the letter he could pit against assertions of his own (synbio is bad; synbio is good). His response missed much of the message of the letter, which is primarily about the industrialisation of biology (clearly a question important to the Luddites200 movement, which is concerned with ensuring capital and technology serves the commonality and not vice versa). Take the following paragraph from the open letter:
“If the problem were just conceptual, it wouldn’t be so bad. But synthetic biology’s technocratic projects have massively damaging practical consequences. Time and again the cause of these disasters is that the technocratic mindset leads you to mis-define the problem as technical, when its real cause is social. Your tool is a hammer, so every problem looks to you like a nail. The real cause of climate change is industrial capitalism, and it can’t be fixed with biofuels. Such technofixes are always intended to keep the system that caused the problem going. And because they are part of the problem they perpetuate it: in the quest to supply our absurd overuse of energy and to prop up the profit-making of multinational companies, biofuels are already leading to environmental damage, hunger and the grabbing of land from Third World farmers.”
Of this, Taylor says:
“The author makes some interesting points about the use of biofuels and, presumably, GM (which is the research field that synthetic biology has seemingly assimilated). Whilst the inappropriate, unilateral and unethical use of these technologies is certainly something we, as a society, must be mindful of, I would point out that the potential benefits clearly warrant further investigation. Like all scientific endeavours, synthetic biology and its applications […] must be conducted in an evidence-based and academically rigorous manner. I do not deny that synthetic biology has the potential to be dangerous, but it is only through careful research – good science – that we find out how to make biotechnology better, cheaper and safer, and to study the consequences of human action – if there is evidence to be had that the natural world is at risk from human intervention then it is we, scientists such as those attending the SB6.0 conference, who are your strongest allies.”
This response positions questions of ethics and inappropriate use of technologies as things of which to be ‘mindful’ whilst ensuring that we explore the potential benefits. The appeal is to evidence-based application and academic rigour, coupled to promises of “better, cheaper and safer” biotechnology and an assertion that with evidence of risks to the natural world scientists will be on their/your side. This doesn’t respond to the argument put forward in the letter, which – in regard to biofuels – doesn’t concern their technical risks and costs but rather the way in which their adoption would support current structures of industrial (biotech) capitalism. These are not things about which evidence is easy to accrue or display.
Without wishing this blog post to become more a question of “can Alex Taylor engage critically with capitalism?”, (which would of course be an unjust focus) I do think his response is characteristic of technical experts when they discuss their work with NGO groups and social scientists in the context of questions about industry, capitalism and technology. This makes me wonder, can scientists engage critically with capitalism?
Synthetic biology is a good place to pose the question because it is resoundingly co-opted into the current development of the bioeconomy. David Willets announced a whole bunch of funding at the conference, there’s loads coming up for Centres from the BBSRC and EPSRC. Willets has also positioned synbio as one of the eight great technologies that will save the economy and – one is encouraged to imagine – the world. This happens because individual scientists and governance actors shape the present by promises of the future. For example, the politically-savvy Richard Kitney pushed hard for the UK RoadMap, is co-director of CSynBi and now runs the IKC in synbio. But it isn’t just people that make these things happen. In the story of industry, profit and engineering, the practices and norms of engineering were themselves importantly shaped by processes of industrialisation and vice versa. The notions of efficiency, standardisation, specialisation, abstraction and so on thus operate in both worlds as engineering shaped capital and capital shaped engineering. The ontological remit of synthetic biology to create novel parts has eagerly begun to embed this technopolitical economic system of norms, values and processes into biological material and the shaping of synbio research practices. Even the pursuit of sharing practices ostensibly intended to open-up knowledge and the material of synbio is based on such processes. The creation of these spaces of innovation with biological organisms are premised on a future in which more and more people have access to synbio techniques and materials, and on the meritocractic assumption that wealth goes only to those with merit. The imaginary and vision of synbio, borrowed from the computer industry, promises a bohemian, Google-like ‘Don’t Be Evil’, Silicon Valley of synbio entrepreneurs who built cool bio gadgets, saved poor people and made a fortune. This is the modern neo-liberal promise, in which anyone can unshackle themselves from poverty by using knowledge and their own bootstraps to pull themselves out of the structures in which they were born and reach the heights of social order.
All of this is so far removed from the practical concerns of activists struggling to make their voice and concerns heard that it’s no wonder everyone ends up talking at crossed wires. Activists are concerned, for example, with how contemporary neoliberal responses to the banking crisis only furthers austerity, making poorer people poorer and rich people richer. These are not questions for economists to worry about whilst synthetic biologists carry on making cool widgets. They have to be asked at the nexus of science and the economy, particularly when science is being positioned as the backbone of that economy. I imagine a lot of synthetic biologists genuinely hope their innovations will alleviate poverty and inequality and that they can do this through the processes in which they are embedded. But their dreams of the future are inherently invested with the ideology in which they have to work. If they want to secure funding, progress in their careers, train up new postgraduates and postdocs, secure a lab, be able to pursue their own interests and so on, they have to play the game of neoliberal technocracy. I empathise deeply with this situation because it is the one in which I also work. However, I’ve got a whole bunch of critical tools that, although they don’t allow me to completely remove myself from the context, allow me to critically engage with it. If there’s one thing science could do better in the current context of impact and responsibility, it would be to get more critical. Again, this doesn’t mean just being anti-capitalism or anti-technology, but rather engaging substantively with its processes, promises and implications.
As such, I think perhaps the most pressing question facing synthetic biology if it is to be truly responsible in its innovation has to be a detailed and deeply practical concern with whether the science is done in service of people everywhere or in the service of corporations. This is exactly the kind of thing that the participants of the synthetic biology dialogue have in mind. That means reassurances based on technical solutions won’t be adequate to the public concerns with synthetic biology.
The final sentence of the open letter states that “if humanity is going to get out of the hole that technocratic capitalism has dug, we need to stop digging.” This doesn’t mean quitting synthetic biology out of fear of mutant microorganisms. It isn’t threatening a revolt based on ignorance. Instead, it asks scientists to open themselves up to the contexts in which their practices are based because those scientific developments are part of those contexts. I don’t know the people at Luddites200, and I would not have written the letter with the same tone, but I think some of their questions are important to consider in ways that don’t reduce the issues to ‘merely’ technical problems. Responsibility here means taking seriously the challenge that synthetic biology might serve to further global crises and inequalities rather than ameliorate them. If synthetic biologists want to be truly responsible they have to talk openly about their plans to profit from their microorganisms. What was the justification for the funding of the research and how will that impact on the direction of the work? Where will the money go? Where did the money come from? And who owns the patents? What effects will the capitalisation of some synbio device have on economies outside of the UK, Europe and USA? Where will (un)employment happen? What will the labour be like and is it sustainable? What kinds of lives does the invention make possible and what kinds does it foreclose? These kinds of questions are not addenda to the issue of technical design. They cannot be fixed with kill-switches or bland assurances that ethics are being considered. These questions have to be built into the organisation of research projects, their funding, their obligations to social groups, their daily laboratory practices, and ultimately into the objects themselves.
The potential of responsible innovation will depend greatly on how the question of responsibility is understood. In the pursuit of their own academic interests, and in their important and valuable technical explorations and adventures in synthetic biology, it will be essential for synthetic biologists to ask: in the game of synthetic life, who wins and who loses?