Nav: Home

New tool can help policymakers prioritize information needs for synthetic biology tech

January 17, 2017

New technologies are developed at a rapid pace, often reaching the marketplace before policymakers can determine how or whether they should be governed. Now researchers from North Carolina State University and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore have developed a model that can be used to assess emerging synthetic biology products, well before they are ready for the market, to determine what needs to be done to inform future policies.

"For emerging technologies, there are a host of groups that may have an interest in determining how the technologies should be governed - from public policymakers to the private sector," says Jennifer Kuzma, co-lead author of a paper describing the work and the Goodnight-North Carolina GlaxoSmithKline Foundation Distinguished Professor in Social Sciences at NC State.

"Governance can take many forms, from public engagement efforts to the development of regulations, but in order to determine what measures may be necessary, groups need to first identify relevant research, dialogue and information needs," says Kuzma, who is also the co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at NC State. "For example, what do we need to know in order to make informed decisions about this technology? What we've now developed is a tool that can be used to help stakeholders identify and prioritize those needs on a case-by-case basis."

To create the model, researchers interviewed 45 synthetic biology experts, then conducted a follow-up survey of 34 of those experts, focusing on four case studies of synthetic biology technology: two types of highly engineered microbes, de-extinction technology, and cyberplasm - theoretical, nanoscale robots made of biological components. For each case, the experts were asked a broad range of questions, including questions related to risk and governance.

Two key themes that came out of those interviews and surveys were controllability and familiarity. Controllability can refer to issues such as how widely a technology may be used or whether it is reversible. Familiarity refers to how much people know about a given technology and the extent to which a new technology is similar to existing technologies or organisms.

"Broadly speaking, we found that controllability was more important in terms of assessing environmental and human health risk, whereas familiarity played a stronger role in determining whether more attention should be paid to the ethics of how a new technology may be deployed," says Christopher Cummings, co-lead author of the paper and an assistant professor of strategic communication in the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Drawing on these analyses, Kuzma and Cummings developed a tool called the Societal Risk Evaluation Scheme, or SRES.

Under the SRES, users evaluate how much information is available in each of eight categories:

  • Human health risks;
  • Environmental health risks;
  • Unmanageability;
  • Irreversibility;
  • The likelihood that a technology will enter the marketplace;
  • Lack of human health benefits;
  • Lack of environmental benefits; and
  • Anticipated level of public concern.

Users can then plot the results in a chart to help determine what next steps should be.

For example, if there is a lot of data showing minimal human health risk, but there's also evidence of significant public concern, a public outreach effort may be warranted. Or, if users see that there is a paucity of human health risk data, that could be a focal point for future research.

"Technologies are developing so rapidly that we need to have the foresight to plan ahead," Kuzma says. "Right now, it seems like governance doesn't begin to take place until new technologies are either poised to enter the marketplace or are already there."
-end-
The paper, "Societal Risk Evaluation Scheme (SRES): Scenario-Based Multi-Criteria Evaluation of Synthetic Biology Applications," is published in the journal PLOS ONE. The research was supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

North Carolina State University

Related Technology Articles:

The science and technology of FAST
The Five hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST), located in a radio quiet zone, with the targets (e.g., radio pulsars and neutron stars, galactic and extragalactic 21-cm HI emission).
AI technology could help protect water supplies
Progress on new artificial intelligence (AI) technology could make monitoring at water treatment plants cheaper and easier and help safeguard public health.
Transformative technology
UC Davis neuroscientists have developed fluorescence sensors that are opening a new era for the optical recording of dopamine activity in the living brain.
Do the elderly want technology to help them take their medication?
Over 65s say they would find technology to help them take their medications helpful, but need the technology to be familiar, accessible and easy to use, according to research by Queen Mary University of London and University of Cambridge.
Technology detecting RNase activity
A KAIST research team of Professor Hyun Gyu Park at Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering developed a new technology to detect the activity of RNase H, a RNA degrading enzyme.
Taking technology to the next level
Physicists from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Ultrahigh bandwidth Devices for Optical Systems (CUDOS) developed a new hybrid integrated platform, promising to be a more advanced alternative to conventional integrated circuits.
How technology use affects at-risk adolescents
More use of technology led to increases in attention, behavior and self-regulation problems over time for adolescents already at risk for mental health issues, a new study from Duke University finds.
Hold-up in ventures for technology transfer
The transfer of technology brings ideas closer to commercialization. The transformation happens in several steps, such as invention, innovation, building prototypes, production, market introduction, market expansion, after sales services.
The ultimate green technology
Imagine patterning and visualizing silicon at the atomic level, something which, if done successfully, will revolutionize the quantum and classical computing industry.
New technology detects COPD in minutes
Pioneering research by Professor Paul Lewis of Swansea University's Medical School into one of the most common lung diseases in the UK, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, has led to the development of a new technology that can quickly and easily diagnose and monitor the condition.
More Technology News and Technology Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Rethinking Anger
Anger is universal and complex: it can be quiet, festering, justified, vengeful, and destructive. This hour, TED speakers explore the many sides of anger, why we need it, and who's allowed to feel it. Guests include psychologists Ryan Martin and Russell Kolts, writer Soraya Chemaly, former talk radio host Lisa Fritsch, and business professor Dan Moshavi.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#538 Nobels and Astrophysics
This week we start with this year's physics Nobel Prize awarded to Jim Peebles, Michel Mayor, and Didier Queloz and finish with a discussion of the Nobel Prizes as a way to award and highlight important science. Are they still relevant? When science breakthroughs are built on the backs of hundreds -- and sometimes thousands -- of people's hard work, how do you pick just three to highlight? Join host Rachelle Saunders and astrophysicist, author, and science communicator Ethan Siegel for their chat about astrophysics and Nobel Prizes.