The Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars will be hosting, courtesy of its Synthetic Biology Project (SynBio Project), an event on March 27, 2012 titled (from the March 21, 2012 event announcement),
The Art of Synthetic Biology Governance: Considering the Concepts of Scientific Uncertainty and Cross-Borderness
When: March 27, 2012 from 12:30 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. (Light lunch available at noon.)
Who: Dr. Claire Marris, [senior research fellow at] King’s College London [and one of the report’s authors]
David Rejeski, Director, Science and Technology Innovation Program, will moderate the session
Where: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
5th Floor Conference Room
Ronald Reagan Building
1300 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Sadly, it seems that there will not be a webcast, livestreamed or otherwise so the only option is to attend in person. If you can attend in person, here’s the registration link.
This event marks the release of a new working paper from the London School Economics (LSE), “BIOS working paper no. 4, The Transnational Governance of Synthetic Biology: Scientific uncertainty, cross-borderness and the ‘art’ of governance.” BTW, BIOS is the LSE’s Centre for the Study of Bioscience, Biomedicine, Biotechnology and Society.
There’s more about the report here, as well as, a PDF of the report on the Synbio Project website. I’ve only read about 1/4 of the report and can only comment on their general approach which I find quite interesting. From the executive summary of the working report, The Transnational Governance of Synthetic Biology: Scientific uncertainty, cross-borderness and the ‘art’ of governance,
The paper goes beyond proposals to mitigate specific risks of synthetic biology to investigate the root causes of such concerns, and address the challenges at an overarching level.
…Effective governance seeks to foster good science, not to hamper it, but recognises that good science goes hand in hand with open, clear, transparent regulation to ensure both trust and accountability.
• Such an ‘art of governance’ seeks to facilitate effective interactions between the range of current and emerging social actors involved in or affected by scientific and technological developments, to ensure that all parties have the opportunity to express their perspectives and interests at all stages in the pathways of research and development, through transparent and democratic processes. The art of governance recognises that no decisions will suit all actors, but effective compromise depends on ensuring openness and transparency in the process by which decisions are reached, demonstrating genuine consideration of all perspectives.
We highlight three crucial challenges for the effective national and international governance of synthetic biology:
• FIRST, governance of science is not just a matter of governing the production and application of knowledge, but must also recognise that scientific uncertainty is not merely temporary but endemic: not merely calculable risks, but provisional unknowns, unknown unknowns, and even wilful ignorance or a conscious inability-to-know. Such ‘non-knowing’ cannot be overcome simply by acquiring more knowledge: increasing knowledge often leads to increasing uncertainty. [emphasis mine] Effective governance of synthetic biology must give explicit and attention to both knowledge and non-knowing.
• SECOND, synthetic biology relies on collaborative contributions from distinct disciplines and professions, and this requires accountability beyond that internal to each field. While good governance of synthetic biology demands proper accountability within scientific disciplines and professional bodies, it also requires the cultivation of external accountability, not only across and between such fields, but beyond, to all those who may be affected. Such networks of accountability accommodate change over time, facilitate mutual trust and responsiveness among various groups and constituencies, encourage good practice and robust science, and enhance openness and transparency. [emphasis mine]
• THIRD, the combination of scientific uncertainty and cross-borderness ensures that no single group, organization, constituency or regulatory body will have the capacity to oversee, let alone to control, the development of synthetic biology. An art of governance is required to accept the constitutive fragmentation of social authorities, and to work with such diversity, not as a hindrance, but as a condition of, and advantage for, effective governance. [emphasis mine]
In the light of these three challenges, we argue that scientifically informed, evidence-based approaches to policy-making, while essential, are insufficient. It is time to bring back a sense of the ‘art’ to the governance of biotechnology: an approach which employs proactive, open-ended regulatory styles able to work with uncertainty and change, to make links across borders, and to adapt to evolving relations among changing stakeholders, including researchers, research funders, industry, and multiple publics. (pp. 3-4)
I quite appreciate the descriptions of uncertainty and unknowingness as I’ve been coming to that conclusion for some time but they’ve said more elegantly than I can. As for the art of governance as a means of dealing with the cross-borderness (similar terms in academia include: transdisciplinary, crossdisciplinary, and multidisciplinary), as well as the uncertainty inherent to synthetic biology (and the other emerging technologies) I like the proposed metaphor and scope of this approach to governance. They may seem unattainable but it’s important to set one’s sights as high as possible in these types of efforts because inevitably the grand ideas will be chopped down to size in practice, in much the same way that one uses a large piece of marble to sculpt a statue which will have significantly less mass.