Society and Synthetic Cells – Challenges and Dilemmas

Society and Synthetic Cells – Challenges and Dilemmas

Author: Noelle Aarts, Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands

Co-author: Lotte Krabbenborg

Format: Linked paper

Two years ago, 14 experts accepted the invitation to be part of the so-called Future Panel on Synthetic Life. The panel included members with expertise in chemistry, physics, synthetic biology, social sciences and public engagement, legal procedures, ethics, media, bio art, risk assessment, policy and management and biotech-industry. The overall aim of the Future Panel was to give substance to the four pillars of responsible innovation (RI): anticipation, reflexivity, inclusiveness and responsiveness. As such, in a series of meetings the panel discussed issues related to the question: how should we organize the development of the syncell in such a way that it contributes to a fair, just and sustainable world? The aim of this panel was to write a position paper with an initial agenda for future political, academic and public debate regarding the responsible innovation of the synthetic cell.

In this study we analyze the process through which the position paper came about. The focus was on the various frames that were brought to the fore in the future panel discussions, including how these were interactionally constructed, selected and used. A crucial moment was when one of the participants introduced a helpful metaphor: “It seems we want to build the bus, but nobody cares about how to build the bus”. Another crucial moment took place when two panel members decided to reject co-authorship as they could not agree with the way their contributions were combined with those of others.

Our study confirms the potential controversial nature of synthetic cell technology and the communicative and institutional challenges that arise when putting RI in practice. Several
recommendations are made for discussing the building of a synthetic cell with relevant stakeholders in the context of RI, including the wider public.