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Synthetic biology

25 January 2008

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) has for the past year been acting to ensure that its research policies and funding decisions take account of the wide ethical and other social issues surrounding so-called ‘synthetic biology’, which have been highlighted in recent media interest around artificial life forms.

Currently, BBSRC funds a small number of projects in the general area of synthetic biology, none of them directly concerned with artificial forms. In 2006, we brought together leading bioscientists, engineers and physical scientists, with social scientists and ethicists, in a workshop to consider the emerging science and its wider implications for society.

In addition, through its Bioscience for Society Strategy Panel, BBSRC commissioned an independent review of the UK’s position in synthetic biology and the key societal issues raised by new research capabilities and the likely trajectory of the research. The review, by Andrew Balmer and Dr Paul Martin of the Institute for Science and Society at the University of Nottingham, was presented to the Strategy Panel earlier this month. The findings will help to inform both the BBSRC’s role as a major funder of basic bioscience research and how the UK public may be enabled to participate in debate about the potential applications. The paper also considers possible risks and regulatory frameworks for such research in the UK. Dr Martin’s review will be published.

The Bioscience for Society Strategy Panel’s subgroup on Synthetic Biology is chaired by independent environmental consultant, Dr Brian Johnson. It will be making recommendations and providing advice to BBSRC Council on the issues raised by Dr Martin’s review and the wider public debate.

BBSRC is working closely with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Royal Society on how to take forward public dialogue and engagement on the science of synthetic biology, and with the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council on wider societal issues.

On the research side, new networks will bring together relevant UK scientists and engineers. Funded by BBSRC, EPSRC, ESRC and AHRC, the remit of these networks includes ensuring that  ethical, societal and legal issues are addressed. 

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External Relations Unit