Letter to the Editor of Nature on Synthetic Biology

In a recent issue of Nature, there was a special section on moving ‘Beyond Divisions’ in building the future of synthetic biology. While I and many of my colleagues support many ways of moving beyond many types of divisions, we thought the initial ‘Worldview‘ piece by  Volker ter Meulen required a concerted reply, as it missed the point of much of our work. 20 colleagues (listed below) and I sent the following Correspondence to Nature’s Editor, which was published in Issue 7504. A preprint version is below.


Synthetic biology: missing the point

Volker ter Meulen warns that if environmental groups and others exaggerate the risks of synthetic biology it could promote over-regulation, which he says happened for genetically modified organisms (See here). But the point of supporting synthetic biology is not about making sure that science can go wherever it wants: it is about making the type of society people want to live in.

In the United States, for example, the rapid and uncritical introduction of genetically modified organisms prevented debate on issues such as alternative innovation pathways, and the impact on biodiversity and pest resistance. Many believe that these issues would have been better addressed through earlier and broader public discussion of the uncertainties surrounding transgenic organisms (see  for example S. Jasanoff Designs on Nature Princeton Univ. Press; 2005).

In our view, ter Meulen trivializes the role of social scientists in suggesting that they could help the synthetic-biology debate by finding better ways to communicate what scientists think. He also implies that public concern over such technologies and their governance reflects only a failure to understand the science of risk assessment — but this ‘deficit model’ of public concerns has long been discredited (see A. Irwin and B. Wynne Misunderstanding Science? Cambridge Univ. Press; 1996).

It is not unknown for scientists themselves to foster exaggeration and uncritical acceptance of claims, or to focus on anticipated benefits rather than on risks. This practice may be at the heart of wider public concerns about responsible innovation (see the report of the Synthetic Biology dialogue, for instance).


Sam Weiss Evans University of California, Berkeley, USA.
Sheila Jasanoff Harvard Kennedy School, Cambridge, Masschusetts, USA.
Jane Calvert University of Edinburgh, UK.
Jason Delborne North Carolina State University, Raleigh, USA.
Robert Doubleday University of Cambridge, UK.
Emma Frow University of Edinburgh, UK.
Silvio Funtowicz University of Bergen, Norway.
Brian Green Santa Clara University, California, USA.
Dave H. Guston Arizona State University, Phoenix, USA.
Ben Hurlbut Arizona State University, Phoenix, USA.
Alan Irwin Copenhagen Business School, Denmark.
Pierre-Benoit Joly INRA, IFRIS, Paris, France.
Jennifer Kuzma North Carolina State University, Raleigh, USA.
Megan Palmer Stanford University, California, USA.
Margaret Race SETI Institute, Mountain View, California, USA.
Jack Stilgoe University College London, UK.
Andy Stirling University of Sussex, UK.
James Wilsdon University of Sussex, UK.
David Winickoff University of California, Berkeley, USA.
Brian Wynne Lancaster University, UK.
Laurie Zoloth Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, USA.

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