Team:University College London/HumanPractice/MOYM



Meeting Of Young Minds Debate

Meeting Of Young Minds

At the beginning of June, the Rathenau Instituut (a Dutch body which promotes the formation of political and public opinion on science and technology) put out a call for proposals for a debate, the Meeting of Young Minds, to be held on the Friday evening preceding the African-European jamboree.

The first Meeting of Young Minds debate, which took place in 2011, pitted iGEM teams against representatives from Dutch youth political parties in a meeting of ‘future scientists and future politicians’ to discuss the ‘promises and perils of synthetic biology’. For Meeting of Young Minds 2012, iGEM teams were invivted to submit their own themes for debate. Our proposal ‘A synthetic biology future, a synthetic biology crisis’ was one of two themes selected.

Our proposal

We decided that we wanted our proposal to have some link to our project, hoping that we might gain some new perspectives from the debate. At this point in the summer, we knew what our project was going to be, but not how it was going to work, so we came up with the idea of a debate broadly based around geoengineering – deliberate large-scale scientific projects to address or remedy the environmental impact of human activities.

Early ideas included discussion on the ethics of syn-bio geoengineering and the rights and responsibilities relating to such large scale projects. However, our research quickly revealed that these topics had been already been well-publicized and thoroughly discussed. We decided to try and avoid the tired and abstract moral/ethical questions, and bring our debate into a more concrete setting by using a ‘crisis scenario’.

Crisis scenario

The crisis scenario was inspired by the Rathenau Institute’s Synbio futures, a series of ‘techno-moral vignettes’ – short stories imagining possible futures in which synthetic biology technologies have become commonplace. Our crisis scenario, which is set in 2030, imagines the mutation of widely-used synthetic fertilizer, FertiBac, to produce a toxin that is spreading into crops and waterways. See the full scenario here.

Using this crisis scenario we provide a framework for the debate by setting out a possible future in which the fears raised by synthetic biology have come true – to discuss the ‘what now’ rather than the ‘what if’, to debate in practicalities rather than generalities.

The debate

We are very pleased to have Annemiek Nelis of the Dutch Safety Board chairing our section of the Meeting of Young Minds. We will also have a panel of representatives from the UEA Norwich and Paris Bettencourt iGEM teams, the Oxford Conservative Association, GreenLeft Youth Organization, and National Federation of Young Farmer’s Clubs, amongst others.

They will act as the ‘European Council of Synthetic Biology’, who will come together in a public hearing in the aftermath of the crisis. They will be responsible for deciding the best course of action to take and interrogating members of our team, as the scientist, manufacturer, marketer, and regulator of the failed technology. We will also hear questions and suggestions from the public, of which the best three suggestions will be announced on the iGEM wiki and the Rathenau website.

Position Paper

As preparation for the debate, we were asked to write a 2500-word position paper. The paper, which is available here, is divided into three parts. The first part, ‘The synthetic biology present’, presents the current legal situation around deliberate release and transboundary movement of synthetic organisms. Part 2, ‘Next steps’, questions the need for changes to the existing legislation, as synthetic organisms move out of the laboratory towards industrial applications, to reflect the new challenges – real or perceived – posed by truly synthetic (as opposed to simply genetically modified) organisms. Part 3 ‘Into the future’, deals with the issues posed by our crisis scenario, looking at issues of liability and at how such a crisis might affect the future of synthetic biology.

We hope to see you there!

For more information, please see