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Public dialogue opened on synthetic biology

4 September 2009

BBSRC and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) have  now commissioned a public dialogue on synthetic biology. The programme will be led by the two Councils on behalf of Research Councils UK and has received support from Sciencewise-ERC.

The Research Councils have awarded a contract to deliver the public dialogue programme to British Market Research Bureau (BMRB), an organisation with a strong track record of working on dialogue around emerging scientific areas. The programme will start this month with the convening of an oversight group to advise on the best way forward. A series of dialogue activities will then take place throughout late 2009 and early 2010, with a report due in Spring next year.

Synthetic biology is a fast developing area of science that applies engineering principles to biological systems. Many scientists believe that this approach will ultimately result in the rational and systematic design of systems that may help us to address major challenges of the future. Possible applications of synthetic biology could include the creation of novel systems to generate power, new medical applications, nanoscale biological computers, new approaches to cleaning up dangerous waste or sensitive biosensors for health or security applications.

Synthetic biology is attracting significant interest from the wider public, making this the right time to begin a public dialogue programme to ensure that future Research Council and wider Government policies can reflect the public’s views.

The importance of early, ‘upstream’, engagement with the public and genuine dialogue on emerging areas in science and technology is widely recognised. Synthetic biology is already provoking a range of views and this dialogue programme will ensure that the public’s views can be taken into account broadly, becoming an integral part of research and governance on synthetic biology rather than an add-on element.

One anticipated outcome of the programme is to raise the awareness within the Research Councils, with policy makers and the scientific community of the importance of public dialogue, encouraging increased participation from the scientific community.

BBSRC and EPSRC are the main public funders of synthetic biology in the UK. The dialogue programme builds on several years of preliminary activity. In 2007 BBSRC set-up a synthetic biology working group to consider the societal issues around synthetic biology. This group commissioned an independent report, published in 2008, to examine the social and ethical challenges of synthetic biology. They also set up a meeting to discuss regulation with policy makers, academics and others. EPSRC’s Societal Issues Panel and BBSRC’s Bioscience for Society Panel are working together on the issues of synthetic biology. In February this year they began the process of commissioning a public dialogue that will be the foundation of future public engagement in this area.


Patrick Middleton, Head of Engagement

tel: 01793 413368