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9th EMBL/EMBO Joint Conference 2008

Joyce Tait, University of Edinburgh, UK

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Joyce Tait

Biography

Professor Joyce Tait (CBE) is Scientific Adviser of the ESRC Innogen Centre, and a professor at the University of Edinburgh. She has an interdisciplinary background in natural and social sciences covering: technology development strategies in the chemical and life science industries (including agrobiotechnology and pharmaceuticals), translational medicine; governance, risk assessment and regulation; policy analysis; stakeholder attitudes and influences; science and risk communication. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and also of the Society for Risk Analysis.

Recent and current external appointments include: Scottish Science Advisory Committee; Scientific and Technical Council of the International Risk Governance Council, Geneva; Member of the Board of Directors of the Scottish Stem Cell Network Ltd.; Member of the Governing Council of the Roslin Institute; President, Society for Risk Analysis - Europe.

Abstract

Governance of synthetic biology: science, policy and citizens

Questions of governance of science and related innovations are inescapable in all areas of life sciences, sometimes even at the earliest research funding stages. The research that is conducted, and the products that eventually emerge from it, will depend on a complex series of interactions among: the scientific and technical feasibility of novel ideas; strategic decision making in large and small companies; policy decision making; risk regulation; public attitudes and stakeholder concerns. Unfortunately, one precedent for much current thinking about governance in newly emerging areas of the life sciences, for example stem cells, nanobiotechnology, synthetic biology, is GM crop development.

The controversy surrounding GM crops, explicitly or implicitly, haunts many of these discussions. It is important to ensure that such an unfortunate coincidence of events does not occur again, and to ensure that the governance gains made with GM crops are not diluted in future. This paper will consider the governance needs raised by synthetic biology at the research stage and in the development of new products and processes. In particular, it will challenge the feasibility, although not the desirability, of some aspects of "good governance" which have become embedded in the procedures of many countries as "stakeholder engagement".

This relates to, what is sometimes called "upstream engagement" and adoption of a precautionary approach. The paper will also challenge the long term value of weakening the quality of the evidence base used to support governance-related decision making by uncritically bringing in evidence from a broader variety of stakeholder perspectives, with the stated aim of making decision processes more democratic. On a more positive note, it will suggest some criteria and guidelines for the future governance of synthetic biology.