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Laboratory equipment in the MICALIS quantitative metagenomics (MetaQuant) experimental facility. © INRA, INRA

How synthetic biology could benefit from the social sciences

Holding debates on synthetic biology in France

At the request of the Ministry of Higher Education and Research, sociologists at INRA and MINES ParisTech conducted a study that examined the conditions that should frame public debates on synthetic biology. Their report, published in 2011, draws on lessons learned from previous debates centered on the sciences and emerging technologies; it recommends the creation of a long-term monitoring agency and the establishment of regular meetings on the topic.

By Pascale Mollier, translated by Jessica Pearce
Updated on 12/08/2014
Published on 10/10/2014

Conference/Debate organized by the Science en Questions working group, Paris 2005. © INRA, MAITRE Christophe
Conference/Debate organized by the Science en Questions working group, Paris 2005 © INRA, MAITRE Christophe

The Common Advisory Committee for Ethics in Agricultural Research has underscored that “real progress improves the conditions in which the men and women of the world live. It is crucial that progress be taught, managed, and shared. When research starts pulling society in unanticipated directions or into uncharted territory […], it is not surprising that the advances being made engender resistance, which can sometimes become entrenched.”

Such is the situation in France, where it is challenging to hold public debates involving the sciences and emerging technologies. Certain groups are categorically opposed to the idea because they feel that such debates only serve to promote the acceptance of new technologies and that participants really have no influence over how implementation will proceed. The 2009-2010 series of public debates on nanotechnologies that was organized by the CNDP (1) was severely disrupted; in numerous cities, debates could not even be held. The first public meeting on the topic of synthetic biology, held in 2014, suffered the same fate (see below). According to Claire Marris (2), “This reaction is unique to France. The UK does not face the same challenges when it comes to organizing debates. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge the criticism being leveled by these groups. It is futile to hold a debate if you are simply looking to avoid controversy or push acceptance. If you want to address questions that are worthy of discussion with a view to developing a given field of research, then it is worthwhile.”

Nine lessons gleaned from prior experiences

After analyzing what has occurred during past debates in several countries and using research conducted over the past twenty years by social scientists, the report’s authors came up with nine lessons that can be used to inform the organization of future public debates.  

Lesson 1 –Uncertainty is an essential resource in public debates.
Lesson 2 –There is no “general public.”
Lesson 3 – The public is often undecided about issues.
Lesson 4 –Public debate regarding sciences and emerging technologies is an inclusive process.
Lesson 5 –Public debate regarding sciences and emerging technologies is an ongoing process.
Lesson 6 –The debate should aim to broaden the suite of scientific and technical options.
Lesson 7 –Debates are centered on important fields and seek to help shape them.
Lesson 8 –Public debate is an essential part of managing advances in the field of synthetic biology.
Lesson 9 –Debates need to have an established framework.

The report used these nine lessons to formulate its recommendations to the ministry. One of the key suggestions is that public debate should play a role in defining synthetic biology (including the field’s topics of interest); consequently, debates should not take place after experts have already made all the pertinent decisions. The report argues that there are both academic and political reasons for developing certain research topics and projects; for example, it may be important to focus on applications that will promote economic development or carefully consider the health risks associated with a certain synthetic “product.” Synthetic biology lies at the crossroads between science and politics; as a result, the way in which it is defined needs to be the very first topic addressed in debates.

Engaging the public: a monitoring agency and discussion forums

There were concrete responses to the report’s recommendations. A synthetic biology monitoring agency (Observatoire de la biologie de synthèse) (3) under the aegis of CNAM (4) was established in 2012 in Paris by the Ministry of Higher Education and Research. The agency keeps track of synthetic biology’s research topics, problems, and key concerns in real time, all while maintaining an objective distance. “The agency’s website allows people to learn about and discuss synthetic biology without necessarily knowing its precise definition,” explains Claire Marris. Other complementary measures aimed at engaging the public are slated for implementation; for instance, different types of meetings, forums, and consensus conferences are being organized at different sites. The first public forum, which was scheduled for April 26, 2014 and organized by CNAM, could not be held because of the actions of a militant group (5). Consequently, Pierre-Benoit Joly (6) suggests that “interested groups or regional governmental organizations rather than scientists should be in charge of organizing the debates, even if scientists themselves do not all share the same opinions about synthetic biology.” The best way to go about setting up new forums for discussion is currently being debated.

(1) Commission nationale de débat public (National Commission for Public Debates)
(2) Claire Marris, an IFRIS researcher currently dispatched to King’s College London, is a co-author on the report “Biologie de synthèse: conditions d’un dialogue avec la société” (“Synthetic biology: establishing a dialogue with society”).
(3) The monitoring agency is made up of a coordinating committee, which takes care of the agency’s day to day operations, and a steering committee, which decides on the agency’s goals and priorities. An interdepartmental group links the agency with the government’s related ministries (Ministry of National Education, Higher Education, and Research; Ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development, and Energy; Ministry of Social Affairs, Health, and Women’s Rights; Ministry of Agriculture, Agrifood, and Forestry).
(4) CNAM: Conservatoire national des arts et métiers (National Conservatory for Arts and Trades)
(5) For more details, see this article (in French) by Morgan Meyer of IFRIS.
(6) Pierre-Benoit Joly, research director for the INRA Sciences and Society Unit and head of IFRIS, is a co-author on the report “Biologie de synthèse: conditions d’un dialogue avec la société” (“Synthetic biology: establishing a dialogue with society”).

Scientific contact(s):

Associated Division(s):
Social Sciences, Agriculture and Food, Rural Development and Environment., Science for Action and Development
Associated Centre(s):

The state of affairs of synthetic biology in France

A 2011 study showed that there are no research funds (ANR) or programs (CNRS) dedicated to synthetic biology in France, a fact that contributes to the field’s lack of visibility. Research funds come from either multidisciplinary or non-thematic funding programmes (e.g., grants focused on bioenergy). In contrast, some specific funding for synthetic biology was made available in the 6th and 7th EU Framework Programmes; French teams have played a significant role in the funded projects. The private sector is actively researching such topics as fuel production and green chemistry. However, there are few public-private partnerships in France as compared to the USA, Germany, or Switzerland.  

The SNRI (1) and OPECST reports recommended that, to promote synthetic biology research in France, experimental facilities should be established in strategic locations—such as in Paris and Greater Paris (e.g., Évry), Toulouse, Bordeaux, Grenoble, and Strasbourg—with a view to sharing equipment, creating a critical mass of researchers, and encouraging exchanges between the public and private sectors.  

An institute that specializes in synthetic biology, the Institute of Systems and Synthetic Biology (ISSB), was established in 2010 in Évry with the help of Genopole and CNRS. ISSB set up a master’s program focused on genomic and organismal sciences with an emphasis on systems and synthetic biology, one of the few of its kind in France (2).

“La Paillasse” (“The Lab Bench”) is a group that is part of the biohacking movement (see section 5). It was founded in 2012 in Vitry-sur-Seine. Its members are both professional and amateur scientists, and they stage debates, organize educational sessions, and carry out scientific experiments.

(1) 2009 SNRI (Stratégie nationale de recherché et d’innovation; National Strategy for Research and Innovation) report.
(2) There is also a program in Strasbourg. A total of around 15 exist in Europe.

(Based on the February 2012 OPECST report)