Monday 10

Can RRI help to overcome ethical issues in new and emerging (bio)technologies?

Posted by Markus Schmidt, Biofaction KG on 10 Oct 2016

Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) is an attempt to reconcile economic interests with the need to become a more sustainable society and the imperative to protect people from avoidable hardships (through jobs, medical support, etc.). Providing solutions to ethical challenges is thus high on the agenda of RRI.

The first step to solve a problem is to acknowledge that it actually exists, rather than to ignore it or talk it away. In a second step the problem needs to be characterised, and increasingly, described by a number of different points of view, currently done through various so-called participative processes that include not only scientists or businessmen but also e.g. consumers, farmers, or other related stakeholders. In an ideal world, the third and last step has all these different views considered when trying to find a solution that is OK for most or everybody.

While step one seems to be the simplest, the second step appears to be limited only by procedural knowledge, e.g. how to find these different people with their different interests, how to bring them together, how to encourage the to talk about the ethical issues. The third step might be the hardest as the way to find an ethically sound decision is itself an ethically contested terrain.

Here I argue that step two, collecting different points of view, is frequently underestimated, especially when the technology at hand has the potential to lead to unusual and unexpected futures, as is the case in synthetic biology. In highly innovative technological areas, take IT as an example, entrepreneurs and innovators agree that consumers most often than not, do not know what they crave for until the new product is presented to them (take the smart phone as the last impressive example). In other words, most people use their existing knowledge as the basis to evaluate new technologies or products, but in a number of cases this knowledge will not prepare the citizen to deal with this new technology or product. [1]

Novel biotechnologies or synthetic biology can be seen as such a technology where our conventional way of referring to previous experiences, existing case studies, or well documented examples comes to an end. One way to enhance citizens with a much broader perspective and enable them to think about the subject in a more creative way, is the collaboration of art and science. Science fiction writers have for many decades formulated ethical problems of the present and the future, so contemporary readers where enabled to frame the problem with a much wider perspective.[2]

The BIO·FICTION Science Art Film Festival (as part of the EC-FP7 RRI Project SYNENERGENE) presents 60 short films from across the globe that look at future implications of synthetic biology from a variety of different, and in many cases unexpected viewpoints. The films have been presented around the world in over 30 locations, each time followed by an intense discussion among the audience about ethical issues in synbio. RRI, through activities like BIO·FICTION may contribute to a broader and possibly more creative debate about the ethical ramifications of new technologies. It will not necessarily solve the ethical problems, at least not immediately, but it can help to see ethical aspects of innovations from more than just two opposing viewpoints.

The award winning film “Copy and Clone” (by Louis Rigaud) is a great film that shows how synbio will allow for the standardisation, modularisation and black-boxing of complex biological functions which could easily in a computer programme that manages the genetic characteristics of farm animals. In this case the player needs to maximize the income (points) in the game and follows a very short-sighted strategy that finally kills all his animal assets. The reaction in the audience is typically centred around the socio-economic forces that shape technology in specific ways, e.g. whether there could be an alternative to just increasing the return of investment.

Another award winning film, Hubris (by Arjan Brentjes), confronts the audience with the effects of what we – naively - wish for, in this case eternal life. The film walks the viewer through the unexpected implications of living forever, for example that then there will be no need for love and sex since reproduction has become totally obsolete, etc. The audience is thus stimulated to think deeply about highly demanded technical solutions and how will eventually change our lifes.

Streichhölzer (Matches) is a visually very well done sequence of burning matches. All matches look the same as they are standardized in size and form, but in the film the process of setting them on fire suddenly reveals a second nature to the matches as they bend and twist in different directions, loosing it uniform and logical form to become unpredictable and “organic” again. The debate triggered by this film reflects on the extent it will be possible to standardize living organisms. 

The films enable a lay audience to quickly understand relevant societal issues of synthetic biology and lower the barrier to actively participate in a debate.  

For more details visit the BIO-FICTION Festival website and read:

 Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt works at Biofaction KG in Vienna

[1] On this and many other heuristics of decision making see recent book by Nobel price winning Daniel Kahnemann „Thinking, fas and slow“ Penguin Books

[2] See: Perkowitz S. 2016. Science fiction: Boldly going for 50 years. Nature.  537, 165–166

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