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Public views on new areas in bioscience

27 March 2009

The UK’s main public funders of an emerging area of science known as synthetic biology are convening a workshop today that will begin to consider how the UK public’s views can be heard and considered in research planning.

Synthetic biology is a fast developing area of science that applies engineering principles to biological systems. It offers unique opportunities to deliver significant benefits in areas such as therapeutics, environmental biosensors and potentially novel methods to produce food, drugs, chemicals or energy.

In many cases, synthetic biology is simply an extension of existing technologies, but it also introduces some potentially new technological capabilities, including, in the longer-term, the possibility of making novel simple cell-like entities from biological building blocks.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) fund early-stage synthetic biology research across the UK. Researchers have been brought together in networks, that address ethical and other societal issues as well as scientific and technological development.

Now the two Research Councils have set up a steering group of independent members to advise them on how to gauge and understand the public’s perceptions, aspirations and concerns around this area of science. The steering group met for the first time on 12 February 2009 and today’s workshop provides an opportunity for a wider discussion about the way forward. The workshop will build on an independent review commissioned by BBSRC that reported in 2008 on social and ethical challenges posed by synthetic biology. The Research Councils have also facilitated discussions between interested parties including researchers, funders and regulators and advisory committees on how the UK regulatory framework will handle potential developments in synthetic biology.

Professor Douglas Kell, Chief Executive of BBSRC said, "This research has the potential to generate important new products and processes for UK bio-industries and it is vital that we capture these and remain competitive with technologies being pursued elsewhere, notably in the USA. But it is important that we enable people to see what is being done and to contribute to shaping the nature and direction of the research."

"Our first priority is to identify how best to discuss this very new science with the public," said Professor David Delpy, Chief Executive of EPSRC. "We are bringing together social scientists, engineers, physical and life sciences researchers, science communicators and representatives from NGOs to advise on such issues and to act as an independent oversight panel for the duration of this endeavour".

Dr Brian Johnson who is a member of BBSRC’s Biosciences for Society Panel and chair of its Synthetic Biology working group has agreed to chair this steering group during the scoping and planning phase. Those attending the first meeting on 12 February 2009 were:

Dr Brian Johnson, Chair
Mr Martin Cannell – DEFRA
Prof Richard Jones – The University of Sheffield
Prof Richard Kitney – ICST
Mrs Suzannah Lansdell – Sciencewise Expert Resource Centre
Dr Tom MacMillan – Food Ethics Council
Dr Lesley Paterson - RAEng
Prof Judith Petts – University of Birmingham
Dr Tom Wakeford – PEALS, Newcastle University
Professor Robert Winston – ICST
Prof Dek Woolfson – University of Bristol
Prof Phillip Wright – The University of Sheffield


Patrick Middleton, Head of Engagement

tel: 01793 413368