Sustainability and Anticipatory Governance in Synthetic Biology

Sustainability and Anticipatory Governance in Synthetic Biology

Arnim Wiek (Arizona State University, USA), David Guston (Arizona State University, USA), Emma Frow (The University of Edinburgh, UK) and Jane Calvert (The University of Edinburgh, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/jsesd.2012040103
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A prominent imaginary of synthetic biology is the sustainability of bio-based technologies. In this paper, the authors discuss various reports, papers, and activities in synthetic biology in relation to a core set of principles of sustainability, paying particular attention to the concept of “prudent vigilance” as introduced by the report by the U.S. Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. The authors introduce two additional concepts – anticipatory governance and transformational sustainability science – and outline an approach for systematically incorporating sustainability considerations into the development of synthetic biology that addresses the challenges and opportunities presented by the field in a more robust way than prudent vigilance. The authors conclude that an opportunity exists to shape synthetic biology toward sustainable outcomes and make recommendations for how research funders might seize this opportunity.
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2. Synthetic Biology Imaginaries

In the introduction to a collection of essays on the “technoscientific imaginary,” Marcus (1995, p. 4) describes the imaginary as looking “to the future and future possibility through technoscientific innovation but [being] equally constrained by the very present conditions of scientific work.” As synthetic biology is an emerging field of technoscience with so much more to be planned and performed, the imaginaries associated with it play a particularly important role. Many synthetic biology imaginaries draw on notions of sustainability, and we find these imaginaries to be as diverse as scholars’ and practitioners’ understandings of synthetic biology and sustainability themselves.

Among the more curious and ambitious of these imaginaries is the idea that synthetic biology might act in the service of sustainability by replacing lost biodiversity, and could even to take us beyond what is found in nature to develop new biodiversity. For example, some synthetic biologists argue that nature’s canvas is limited by the contingencies and path-dependencies of evolution, and that with their technical powers and imagination they could eventually restore damaged portions of the canvas (for example, by restoring to life extinct species like mammoths) or even enlarge the canvas (by devising species new to nature) (Deamer, 2008; Bedau & Parke, 2009). Similarly, Poste (2007) talks about how synthetic biology will enable us to explore ‘biospace,’ the immense realm of mathematical possibilities for biological diversity that has been neglected by evolution.

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