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Synthetic biologyTransnational Governance of Synthetic Biology

Prepared by academics from the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation (CSynBI) at LSE, this working paper on transnational governance of synthetic biology is the product of a year's work funded by the Royal Society.

Synthetic biology aims to 'make biology easier to engineer' promising to revolutionise biotechnology for the energy, medical and agricultural sectors. But what about the potential environmental and health risks, the creation of monopolies dominated by large multinational corporations, and the ethics of creating artificial life? How should synthetic biology be governed to maximise benefits and minimise risks? In the last seven years, some 40 reports have addressed these kinds of issues. The authors of this paper propose a radical new approach to investigate the root causes of such concerns, and address the challenges at an overarching level.

They suggest that effective governance regimes must address two central features of synthetic biology: scientific uncertainty and cross-borderness.  They argue that many future implications of synthetic biology, like other emerging biotechnologies, are not only difficult to predict but are fundamentally unknowable.  They propose a flexible, transparent and evolving ‘art of governance’: to foster good science, not hamper it, whilst ensuring both trust and accountability.

This ‘art of governance’ seeks to involve all those in or affected by scientific and technological developments, to ensure that all parties have the opportunity to express their perspectives and interests at all stages in the pathways of research and development. The art of governance recognises that no decisions will suit all actors, but effective compromise depends on ensuring openness and transparency in the process by which decisions are reached, demonstrating genuine consideration of all perspectives.

The researchers argue that scientifically informed, evidence-based approaches to policy-making, while essential, are insufficient. "It is time to bring back a sense of the ‘art’ to the governance of biotechnology: an approach which employs proactive, open-ended regulatory styles able to work with uncertainty and change, to make links across borders, and to adapt to evolving relations among changing stakeholders, including researchers, research funders, industry, and multiple publics" says report author Dr Joy Zhang.