Debating synthetic biology: a necessity or a masquerade?

I will surely remember this event. My research interests include the study of the governance and the mise en débat of new forms of biology, and in recent years part of my work has focused on the analysis of the emergence and the governance of synthetic biology. The launching of public debates on synthetic biology was of course of interest to me. The 25th of April 2013 I am thus sitting in a conference room at the CNAM. A public debate on the topic is due to take place within the scope of the Forum of Synthetic Biology. This Forum is conceived by its organisers as a “space of open and pluralistic debate to permit the exchange of information, the sharing of knowledge and the expression of disagreements about the multiple challenges of this emerging domain” in order to favour an “enlightened and constructive discussion”. But nothing goes as planned. A few minutes into the debate, it is interrupted by some 15 persons wearing monkey masks. For one and a half hours, out of the two hours allocated to the discussion, the protesters block the debate. I later found out that they are “political individuals” (dixit) of Pièces et Main d’œuvre (PMO) a “workshop” critical of technoscience and industry.

To saturate the space of the debate visually, verbally and physically they use various methods. They show posters (“Participating is accepting”, “Synthetic biology synthemoney biology”) and reveal a large banner saying “No to synthetic life” in front of the lectern, hiding thereby the two coordinators of the debate. They put stickers on the walls and the floor (i.e. “in this very moment King Kong is destroying genopole”, “hollow debate worse than for the nanos”) and repeat slogans (“false debate, we do not participate”, “we will be there, at each false debate”). They make noise, read a declaration, distribute pamphlets and tell people to go home. It is finally through the intervention of a group of high-school pupils that the debate is re-conducted for about 40 minutes.

These are, in a nutshell, my observations of the first public debate of the Forum of Synthetic Biology. The first debate was supposed to shed light on the question “Does synthetic biology exist?” The way the event went led me to think about other questions: why and how to debate about a science like synthetic biology? How to understand and analyse the criticisms made by the actors concerned? Let us explore these questions…

Synthetic biology holds the potential to become a “hot” topic over the coming years. This science, at the nexus of biology and engineering and aiming to create new biological functions, is both promising and problematic. The promises, for example, are to be able to create biofuels from algae, or bacteria capable of depolluting contaminated milieus. Synthetic biology has potential applications in a variety of fields: health, environment, chemistry, energy, materials. Promises of a “new generation of products, industries and markets” and a “substantial leap for biotechnology” are already made.

On the other hand, there are a number of uncertainties: what are the risks? How to avoid the creation of pathogens for malefic purposes, and the contamination of the environment through synthetic bacteria? How to avoid life to be treated as merchandise? Whether the development of biological weapons and bioterrorism, the creation of monopolies and synthetic life: synthetic biology raises a number of ethical, social, economic and political concerns.

Why debate?

Faced with these promises and questions, French public authorities recommend a “real” and “transparent” dialogue between science and society and call for a “serene”, “peaceful and constructive” public debate[1] – terms that are not surprising if we replace the debate within the history of controversies such as those around GMOs and nuclear energy. Decision makers have signalled their intention to consider the public as an entity that needs to be consulted and with which to communicate; decisions about science and technology should not be confined within the hands of scientists and political actors only. The idea is that decisions need to be opened up and be based upon “upstream” discussions involving a plurality of actors and interests – the participation of the public serves thereby to construct a legitimacy for this “new governance” of science.

Thus, the Ministry of Higher Education and Research commissioned a report in 2011 in order to define the means to organise this dialogue between science and society. The recommendation is to follow three steps, out of which two have already been followed. In January 2012 an Observatory of Synthetic Biology is created. The French National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts (CNAM) is chosen to host it for two main reasons: it is considered to be a “neutral” place, and it already has experience in science–society dialogues, since it has organised the NanoForum, a public forum on nanotechnology.[2] Thereafter, a Forum for Synthetic Biology was launched in April 2013 (three further debates were due to take place in 2013). As a final step, a citizen conference is envisaged.

But considering how the first debate went, the Forum has been suspended to “rethink the organisation of the debate in substance and in form” and will recommence in autumn 2013. An occasion, for me as well, to reflect on the challenges, modalities and limits of public debates on science. And to ponder whether sociology of science has perhaps been caught within a certain form of reasoning, i.e. that citizen participation and “serene” debates are desirable as such.

How to analyse the criticisms made?

These debates are not only a place for raising critiques regarding the socio-economic and political aspects of synthetic biology. To understand the different critiques made by the actors who intervene in the debates on the form of the debate itself, the distinction between “divisible” and “indivisible” conflicts is useful. “While the first are well suited for negotiation and are usually resolved through solutions of compromise, the second ones are much more recalcitrant […] an important part of political action consists precisely in modifying the status of conflicts: either to reinforce their indivisible character, that is, harden the conflict or, on the contrary, increase their divisible character, that is, make spaces of negotiation emerge” writes Yannick Barthe (2005), mobilising and rethinking the work of Hirschman.

The debates around synthetic biology can be understood through these distinctions between divisible/indivisible and negotiating/hardening. On the one hand, the Observatory and the Forum consider themselves as spaces of dialogue and debate where people can deliberate and negotiate. Meant to anticipate conflicts, these spaces of negotiation can nonetheless lead to a proliferation of conflicts – on the substance and the form. On the other extreme, there is PMO, an “indivisible” actor who does not want to negotiate nor discuss: “We have no question to ask you, no uncertainty to lift. Our position is already fixed: we do not accept” (pamphlet). The criticisms made by PMO can be qualified as radical and “total”, since they condemn the practices, objectives, products, institutions, debates (considered as “pseudo-forum”, “hollow debate”, “masquerade”) and sociologists involved (qualified as “sociologists of acceptability”).[3]

Between these two positions, there are actors who negotiate while formulating critiques – actors we might call “inversible”. One example is the Fondation des Sciences Citoyennes who is involved in the Forum and the Observatory, but who defines its collaboration as a “vigilant, critical and non unconditional participation”. According to the Fondation, the Forum has not clarified if and how its recommendations will have an impact on subsequent political decisions and it was a mistake to invite only researchers to speak at the first debate. Another association, VivAgora, co-organiser of the NanoForum, has criticised the “analytically and academically overhanging posture” of the Observatory and stressed that “discords” need to be taken into account.

Such an analysis of actors’ criticisms and positioning forces us to problematize terms like debate and participation and renders these terms divisible too.

(Reflecting on) the mise en débat of a science: a continuous effort

Synthetic biology provides an interesting case for carrying out a socio-political analysis of the challenges and difficulties of the mise en débat of an emerging science (mise en débat refers to the various processes and means through which a science becomes the subject of debates, usually in the public sphere). The scene described at the beginning of this text has the merit to have raised a number of fundamental questions: How to consider, or integrate, criticisms made about a science while making sure that debates are democratic? How to allow the voice of multiple actors to be heard, while avoiding that certain actors confiscate, asphyxiate or monopolise this voice? How to debate about a science and, at the same time, about its mise en débat? The sin that was committed: not having reflected enough about these aspects in advance. I propose three remedies: 1. To take these questions seriously. 2. Not to confine the analysis of a science that is still uncertain by using categories that are already certain, but to develop new ones. 3. To use criticisms in a twofold way: as an object to analyse and as a trial to pass (for our concepts).

Photo 1: Pièces et main d’œuvre

Photo 2: In a synthetic biology lab. Photo : Alexander van Dijk.

Photo 3: First Forum of Synthetic Biology, 25 April 2013, CNAM, Paris. Photo : T. Landrain.

[1] Quotes from the SNRI and the OPECST.

[2]The NanoForum was imagined as an open and pluralistic space for debating nanotechnologies: conceived for raising “awareness of the whole of society to these problems”, it was not to be a space of negotiation/arbitrage but an “instance of revelation and for listening” (Dab et al. 2009).

[3] A similar position and strategy of contestation has already been used in the past by PMO to block debates on nanotechnology – see the work of Laurent (2010) and Chateauraynaud (2009).