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Photo of Arden Bement

Dr. Arden L. Bement, Jr.
National Science Foundation

"Science, Policy and the Public"

Opportunities and Challenges in the Emerging Field of Synthetic Biology
NAS/OECD/Royal Academy Symposium
Washington, DC

July 9, 2009

Thank you, Ralph [Cicerone]. Good morning, everyone.

Before we get too serious, I want to share a light-hearted tale that describes the challenges involved in pursuing a different course and in bringing about change, especially in emerging fields of science, engineering and technology.

A synthetic biologist and a social scientist await death at the hands of an executioner. The executioner asks the social scientist if he has a final wish.

"Yes," he says, "I have some new findings on the societal and ethical dimensions of synthetic biology and I want to present them to the scientific community before I die.”"

The executioner then turns to the synthetic biologist and asks if she has a final wish. "Yes," she says, "just shoot me before I have to listen to that lecture."

I'm certain that those of us gathered here today have no such sentiments about the broad issues that this symposium will address. We know that contemporary research at the frontier is characterized by how it draws on and contributes to advances in many fields of science and engineering.

We also know that research and discovery move forward within the context of society's larger goals and values. Over the past several years, reports and commentary on synthetic biology have proliferated. They raise important issues and catalogue both the promise and the potential peril of this emerging field. As in most transformative fields, we can already glimpse the promise that is to come. At the same time, uncertainty about potential impacts, gives us pause.

Many feel a sense of urgency in this tension between benefits and risks of emerging technologies. Balancing both is a difficult challenge even for quite simple choices. In the case of emerging technologies that are very complex, we require sophisticated and subtle solutions -- the very best we can devise. This is the arena in which science and policy should work hand in glove -- and very often don't!

The nexus between science and engineering and policy is not a new subject, but more urgent today as technology penetrates every aspect of our lives. In the words of one technology scholar,1 it is a challenge to understand "how ... intelligent social decisions [can] be made in the face of great complexity, high uncertainty, and rampant disagreement." None of us wants to be caught between a doomsday Scylla and a utopian Charybdis.

You will hear from many experts in science, engineering and policy over the course of this symposium. So I will take this opportunity to mention some overarching issues in science and technology policy that shed some light on what we can do to facilitate sound decision making.

Supporting emerging areas of research is central to the business of the National Science Foundation. We call such embryonic fields "transformative" because they hold great potential for advancing knowledge and providing enhanced benefits to society. The term "transformative" describes science and engineering endeavors that can revolutionize research thinking, create entirely new fields, disrupt accepted theories and perspectives, and destabilize markets.

Over the years, that commitment has led NSF to encourage the fundamental and catalytic research underpinning and leading to advances in biotechnology, computer and communications technologies, and more recently, nanotechnology and synthetic biology—the subject of our discussion here today.

NSF also has a firm commitment to weave social science and environmental studies into research projects involving emerging technologies. Dr. Endy and Dr. Rabinow, whom you will hear from shortly, are both associated with SynBERC, the NSF-supported Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center. Studies of human practices were integrated into The Center's program from its outset.

The NSF Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University helped pioneer this integrative approach several years ago. Indeed, we have an extensive research program in the social, environmental and safety aspects of nanotechnology. Last year, NSF funded two new centers for exploring the environmental implications of nano.

NSF also supports fundamental research on decision making, risk, and uncertainty to gain insight into decision-making processes, loss and mitigation models, and risk perception. This work helps us manage the risks and general governance associated with emerging technologies, including synthetic biology. We often work jointly with mission agencies that have a regulatory responsibility when fundamental research will enhance their ability to carry out their missions.

These activities in fundamental research also serve as catalysts for the education and training of the next generation of researchers, as well as in the development of the science and engineering workforce.

Transformative research today demands not only innovative concepts, but creative and fresh approaches to generating ideas. I'll only mention the recent IDEAS Factory "sandpit" on synthetic biology that NSF jointly sponsored with the U.K. The exercise produced truly visionary projects -- and a number of potential collaborations among UK and US researchers.

Innovative concepts are the sine qua non of scientific progress. We now recognize, in addition, that exploration of safety, security, environmental and social implications must be undertaken coincident with investigations to advance the science leading to the development of emerging technologies.

This recognition is an important step in establishing science and technology policy that is appropriate to the science and responsive to the values of our societies. But it is only a first step -- the path is steep, and we have some arduous climbing yet to undertake.

The pace of discovery and commercialization today is both swift and critical to global prosperity. We need totally new paths to develop a policy framework that is appropriate to the new realities of our technology intensive world. No one wants to forgo the potential benefits and no one wants to ignore the potential perils of new technology.

Yogi Berra once said, "The future ain't what it used to be." (Of course, he also said, "I didn't say most of what I said!"

Certainly we can say today that "science ain't what it used to be." And I would add, it isn't what it will become in the years ahead. Nonetheless, there are some features that characterize the current context of science and engineering that have consequences for our discussion today. The changing context of research requires some rethinking of our present path and some "innovative" responses.

First, we now have a much deeper understanding of complexity, and particularly of complex systems. This gives us a deeper understanding of technology. Current policy discussions should reflect this contemporary reality.

IPCC climate change assessment products are an example of how this can work from the "science side." We need energetic efforts to ensure our emerging technologies are thoroughly understood in a holistic context as well.

"This brings me to a second feature of contemporary science. Modeling and simulation provide powerful new tools for exploring consequences. They not only provide improved methods for testing hypotheses and theories, they enhance our ability to anticipate future developments as we design public policy."

In this way, science can better inform the policy dialogue in ways that were literally impossible only decades ago. Again, climate science is a leading example. The construction of scenarios, using not only physical variables, but economic and social ones as well, is a sophisticated approach to a very complex predicament.

A third feature of contemporary research involves the social sciences. Our understanding of human and social dynamics, as well as the mechanisms of learning has progressed rapidly in recent years. In fact, with today's computer and communications tools, there is every reason to believe that the social sciences are poised to accelerate progress in many research areas. Despite this ripeness, funding and support has been woefully inadequate.

I've already mentioned the involvement of social scientists in synthetic biology research -- a path many governments are following. This is a vital point, so I'd like to elaborate.

Just consider what we demand from social scientists these days. Economists are asked to provide policy guidance and make forecasts for national and global economies. When we ask what is wrong in today's schools we turn with frustration to studies in learning and cognition and we expect immediate answers. When disasters like hurricane Katrina occur, we expect disaster management plans to reflect sophisticated knowledge of human behavior.

And, we have only just begun to consider human responses to climate change. As we design policies for mitigation and adaptation, we need to know -- at the very least -- how people (and the market) will react to incentives or to education about energy alternatives.

We need a very aggressive research agenda to answer all of these questions and many more.

The agenda for synthetic biology will differ in details, but the principle is the same. Technology is created and used by human beings, and without a thorough understanding of humans and our institutions, we have at best only a partial understanding of the technology.

With synthetic biology, we have an opportunity to get this "right" from the outset, but not without a firm commitment to integrate the social, behavioral, cognitive and economic sciences into our research agenda. Without this input, it would be difficult indeed to adequately explore environmental, health, safety and security issues. Government funding agencies can help make this happen.

Thanks to progress in many fields of science and engineering, we now have improved tools to inform decisions and policy. What more do we need?

Many years ago, the British mathematician and biologist Jacob Bronowski wrote a slim but powerful book called Science and Human Values. Among many wise observations, he wrote, "Tolerance among scientists cannot be based on indifference, it must be based on respect."2 The same holds true for scientists, decision makers and the public. At the very least, tolerance means listening attentively to each other. Tolerance also means respecting the public's perception of an emerging technology, even if we disagree. Tolerance does NOT mean displaying indifference to genuine concerns by getting ahead of the public on these issues.

Democratic ideals and values can be at risk in an increasingly technological society when we do not educate and fully engage citizens in dialogue on critical issues. In this respect, synthetic biology and other emerging technologies are no different than many other societal issues. The challenge today, however, is that our societies are infused with technologies that are at once complex and ubiquitous. That makes the dialogue about science and technology much more difficult, but also immensely more important to get right.

At a minimum, we need a clear statement of the science. Although this seems obvious, science that is accessible to policy makers and the broader public is in short supply. Communicating science is a complex endeavor, but one we must work to achieve.

We also need an analysis of possible policy options, and a transparent decision making process. In the U.S., President Obama not only embraces science-based policy, but has made greater transparency and accountability an overarching goal as well.

Engaging citizens in genuine dialogue is the essential final ingredient -- yet one that presents enormous challenges.

Just consider a recent public opinion survey on energy issues conducted by Public Agenda.3 The survey revealed that 51 percent of those surveyed could not name a renewable energy source; 39 percent could not name a fossil fuel. Clearly, there is an urgent need for public education on these issues.

Yet that is not what strikes me as most significant about the survey. Despite a lack of knowledge about energy sources, three quarters of those surveyed believe that the U.S. should move toward increased use of alternative energy even if oil prices go down. These strong attitudes appear to be based on a very slim base of knowledge.

Crude as this snapshot may be, it points to a pervasive and serious problem -- and one that lies at the heart of broader dialogue on emerging technologies. We need an informed public to arrive at informed decisions. It is a fundamental responsibility of everyone to promote and support science, technology, engineering and mathematics education at all levels. Without this goal, our decisions will be made "exclusive-ly," not inclusively.

We know that pursuing new knowledge and innovation is the best path toward economic prosperity and the solution to persistent societal problems, from energy security to climate change, and from poverty to disease. I believe that synthetic biology can make substantial contributions to the quality of life and prosperity in the years ahead.

Our ability to address the most pressing needs of our times depends upon our resolve to pursue a future shaped by scientific vision and leadership.

As for broader societal dimensions, I turn to the famous seventeenth century Japanese swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, to express this perspective. He once wrote, "In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close, and to take a distanced view of close things ..."

This advice applies to the intersection of science, technology and policy no less than it does in considering strategy. Although this perspective may sound at first like a contradiction, the deeper reality is that we must see emerging technologies from "without," which is the citizen's standpoint, and we must find a way to help citizens see it from “within” as researchers do.

If policy aims to develop the world to which we aspire, science and technology create the paths by which we realize those aspirations for all of the world's citizens. That puts us all together in the same boat—steering for the future, with all its uncertainties and its promises.


1. E. J. Woodhouse, of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Return to speech)

2. Bronowski, Jacob; Science and Human Values, 1956; p.81 (Return to speech)

3.; accessed July 7, 2009 (Return to speech)