Team:KU Leuven/Human Practices/Ethics/Normative

From 2013.igem.org

iGem

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  • A video shows that two of our team members are having great fun at our favourite company. Do you know the name of the second member that appears in the video?
  • For one of our models we had to do very extensive computations. To prevent our own computers from overheating and to keep the temperature in our iGEM room at a normal level, we used a supercomputer. Which centre maintains this supercomputer? (Dutch abbreviation)
  • We organised a symposium with a debate, some seminars and 2 iGEM project presentations. An iGEM team came all the way from the Netherlands to present their project. What is the name of their city?

Now put all of these in this URL:http://2013.igem.org/Team:KU_Leuven/(firstname)(abbreviation)(city), (loose the brackets and put everything in lowercase) and follow the very last instruction to get your special jamboree prize!

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Hans Jonas

Responsability of the scientist

The normative evaluation is part of the traditional approach, which is top-down structured.
The aim of this contribution is evaluate our project against the background of the literature on biosafety, biosecurity and justice and synthetic biology


Although we developed a new additional approach, which is bottom-up structured, the traditional approach is still relevant and important nowadays, for example in politics. As the impact of synthetic biology is exponentially increasing and our project being part of that, we believe it is important to examine the implications of our project for the biosecurity, biosafety and justice.


Biosafety

Health and Ecological impact

Biosecurity

Dangers of open source?

Justice

Commercialisation?

Human Practices

It is our sincerest hope that this evaluation finds an interested public. Input from this public can only increase the richness of our work.

Human practices encompasses a broad array of subjects, it involves social, legal and ethical aspects. In regard to synthetic biology it emphasises on the economic, political and cultural forces that may influence the development of this young science and the possible impact on human security, health and welfare.
Because of this broad reach there are many players who have a say on the subject. Social scientists, security analysts, bioethicists, engineers and biological science studies practitioners all play their respective roles.
Inspired by this diversity we continuously searched for extensive feedback from all possible angles. Even within one topic such as ethics many different approaches exist. One of these is the normative evaluation. An normative evaluation attempts to examine standards for the rightness and wrongness of conduct and mainly deals with the question how one ought to act. This process is important when considering for example a future release of modified organisms in the environment. Since we desire to design more than a mere hypothetical solution it is only logical to pursue such an evaluation, even if we will not produce our bacterium on large scale within the iGEM competition.
We hope to give you, the reader, a glimpse of the existing ethical framework surrounding synthetic biology. Therefore, we searched the current literature for relevant articles on ethics and synthetic biology. It is our sincerest hope that this evaluation finds an interested public. Input from this public can only increase the richness of our work. Democratic deliberation is one of the cornerstones of the ethical framework upon which regulations surrounding synthetic biology should be based (Gutmann, 2011).

An ethical description

“The quality of our lives is determined by the quality of our thinking. The quality of our thinking, in turn is determined by the quality of our questions.” (Elder and Richard, 2006). And ethics after all revolves around asking the right questions.

The acceptance of synthetic biology, for the layman, is driven mainly by media and public perception. Therefore many iGEM teams have done their utmost to reach out to this public. An informed public can participate in the debate and in the subsequent hopefully broadly carried, democratic and well informed decision making process. This broad input does not in any way lessen the responsibility of the scientists in the lab. Some state that “Scientists are not morally responsible for how their work is used” (Douglas T. and Savalescu J., 2010). However, in order for society to trust the scientific community, scientists and engineers need to show that they take risks seriously and consider the implications of the research being pursued.
This is why an ethical description of each project is and will remain a necessity. Not only to show the layman that we do not blindly perform experiments “because we can” but as an instrument to reflect on our own practice and projects. To identify and mitigate risks, to correctly evaluate benefits and to come to a deeper understanding of what it is that you are doing. Or as Linda Elder puts it so eloquently: “the quality of our lives is determined by the quality of our thinking. The quality of our thinking, in turn is determined by the quality of our questions.” (Elder L. and Richard P., 2006) And ethics after all revolves around asking the right questions. We write this text to aid us in asking the right questions and to help guide the development of our project in a just way.


Book cover Elder

Asking essential questions, a book by dr. Elder from wich we took her quote.

The Framework

The question of where it ultimately comes down to this is: “When is knowingly imposing a risk morally justifiable?” (Calladine & Ter Meulen, 2010).

A new approach to an existing problem has merit when its benefits outweigh its disadvantages and if the new model has a more favourable benefit/disadvantage ratio than the currently existing strategies. Not only this, but it also has to fall between the boundaries of what we consider just and ethically acceptable, even if it is more effective. The key question in this paragraph is: “When is knowingly imposing a risk morally justifiable?” (Calladine & Ter Meulen, 2010).To define these benefits and risks, we will adopt two widely accepted views. The first is the eco-centric view, which states that not only humans but the entire biosphere has an intrinsic moral value. The second view that we consider is an anthropocentric view which defines ‘good’ as beneficial for humanity.

Eco centric view

Some eco-centric ethicists may have fundamental problems concerning the modification of existing life forms. They state that all living organisms have moral standing and thus deserve moral consideration (Deplazes-Zemp & Biller-Andorno, 2012).There are some difficulties with this view: where, for example, do you stop considering something alive? Further there is also Hume’s law: it is not because something is in nature that it also automatically is what ought to be. A detailed overview of these remarks is unfortunately beyond the reach of this text.
Our project aims for a positive impact on the ecological system by the reduction of pesticide use. The organism we modify is a bacterium. Bacteria do not have a nerve system and it is therefore thought that they cannot feel pain. Therefore, most ethicists do not give these organisms equal moral significance compared to for example vertebrates. Indeed, even the sterilisation of objects and therefore the mass eradication of bacteria raises no ethical debate. However, genetically modifying “lower” organisms can be accepted, even by eco-centrists, if its ecological footprint is less than for example heavy duty extraction procedures “Would algae that make gasoline for example, be a more dramatic way of adapting nature to human ends than drilling for oil, processing it and shipping it around the world?”(Kaebnick, 2011).

Anthropocentric view

The anthropocentric view more readily accepts the modification of nature for human use. Nevertheless, even here it is still required to consider our projects’ ecological impact as our well-being is dependent on a careful, sustainable and responsible use of nature’s resources. On the other hand, any risks to humanity weigh very heavily and potential consequences that could endanger the continuous well-being of humans would mean that a project should not be pursued.

With these two views we can evaluate the benefits and disadvantages of our project, by addressing the major concerns. This can help us understand the possible risks, but a definite answer to the question at what point knowingly imposing a risk is morally justifiable is not something we alone can give, if at all. The possible risks affect many and all who are potentially affected should have an input in that debate, directly or through representatives.

We participate in the iGEM competition with this project because we believe it has potential to help build a better future and we wrote this text because we believe that ethics is an important part of the developmental process of our project. Ethics does not just impose restrictions when necessary, but it also guides the direction of development. Finally we can only offer this quote from the American computer scientist Alan Kay: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it”.

We are aware that as the team who is actively pursuing this project, we were undoubtedly biased while writing this evaluation. Nevertheless it has been a useful instrument for us to reflect on the implication of what we are doing and we hope it is useful to the reader by showing that we are not blindly rushing forward without consideration for anyone else.
No one can provide a check-list with all the benefits and downsides carefully weighed against each other, no one can give a 100% guarantee of all the effects bot short and long term and no one can fully foresee where synthetic biology will take us. We can only offer this quote from the American computer scientist Alan Kay: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it”.
We participate in the iGEM competition with this project because we believe it has potential to help build a better future and we wrote this text because we believe that ethics is an important part of the developmental process of our project. It does not just impose restrictions when necessary, but helps guiding the direction of development.

Calladine A.M., Ter Meulen R. (2010). Some initial thoughts on the ethical questions and how we ought to approach them. Synthetic biology and human health, 9-32
Deplazes-Zemp A., Biller-Andorno N. (2012). Explaining Life. EMBO reports, 959-963.
Douglas T., Savulescu J. (2010). Synthetic biology and the ethics of knowledge”.Journal medical ethics 687-693
Elder L., Paul R. (2006). The art of asking essential questions. The foundation for Critical thinking, 48.
Erickson B., Singh R., Winters P. (2011). Synthetic Biology: regulating industry uses of new Biotechnologies. Science, 333(6047), 1254-1256.
Gutmann A. (2011). The ethics of synthetic Biology: Guideline Principles for Emerging Technologies. Hastings Center Report 41, (4), 17-22.
Kaebnick E. G. (2011). Of microbes and Men. Hastings Center Report 41 no. 4, 25-28.