Synthetic biology centre focuses on ethics and public engagement

The Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation is the first publicly funded UK centre dedicated to synthetic biology – the science of designing and building biological components that can perform useful functions, such as producing drugs or biofuels, according to an online Nature news story (published 12 May; doi:10.1038/news.2009.464).

From the news story: "One of the centre’s senior staff is sociologist Nikolas Rose, director of the BIOS Research Centre for the study of Bioscience, Biomedicine, Biotechnology and Society at the London School of Economics. Rose says he aims to make public engagement a key priority for the centre, to avoid a repeat of the public outcry that genetically engineered foods provoked across Europe. “The usual position of the social scientists it to be right downstream, this is a rare opportunity to work right at the beginning,” says Rose.

Rose’s team will train graduate students and staff to consider the social and ethical implications of their research. He says the centre will also work with government and industry to develop a suitable framework to regulate the products of synthetic biology, and to make intellectual-property claims.

“If the Imperial centre works, it’s going to be setting the standard for this,” says Pam Silver, a synthetic-biology researcher at Harvard University. Silver is in the process of setting up a synthetic-biology centre at Harvard University, but “so far there’s been no real discussion of social scientists’ role”, she says.

The need for researchers to consider the societal and ethical dimensions of their work in synthetic biology was a key recommendation of a report published by the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering on 6 May. Richard Kitney, a bioengineer at Imperial, who chaired the working group behind the report, is co-director of the new centre, along with Paul Freemont, from Imperial’s molecular biosciences division."

Nature journals’ author polices on bioethics.


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