Facilitating An Open Discussion

The BioHack allowed us to engage with wider society about our work and synthetic biology in general. Now that we had our first taste of how fruitful this mutual relationship could be, it was time to see whether we could take it a step further. In order to do so, we organised a public panel discussion on drug related issues, where a wide array of experts shared their opinions and answered questions from the audience.

The discussion was chaired by Lisa Wang from the Edinburgh University Debate Union and its panelists included (in order of their panel speech): Anna Ross (Doctoral Researcher in UK Drug Policy at the UoE), Carmen McShane (Service Manager TPS Edinburgh), Kate Hopkins (TPS Practitioner), Graeme Pearson (MSP Scottish Labour) and Vicky Moynihan (3rd year Chemistry student, member of Edinburgh iGEM team). The discussion was preceded by short description of iGEM competition and Edinburgh team project, delivered by Michelle Marufu, member of the Edinburgh iGEM team.

The speakers were in agreement many times throughout the discussion. For example, Carmen McShane and Kate Hopkins, who both work for a social outreach centre called Turning Point Scotland, argued that harm reduction measures were necessary to combat the harmful effects of drug use on society, but that further policy shifts were also necessary. Likewise, Graeme Pearson and Anna Ross suggested that underlying issues, such as poverty and and lack of quality education available to certain demographics, were the most pressing issues in need of policy reform, and that addressing them would have the strongest impact on reducing drug related societal harm.

There were, however, a few points of contention. For example, Graeme Pearson argued that harm reduction measures could go too far. As the former Deputy Chief Constable of Strathclyde Police, he experienced first hand how drug use could rob individuals of their livelihoods and destroy entire families. He therefore believes that all drug use - whether problematic or recreational - should be frowned upon, and that supporting certain harm reduction measures, like drug consumption rooms, could send the wrong to the public. In contrast, Anna Ross contended that drug use in-and-of itself was not necessarily a bad thing; rather, it becomes so when drugs are abused and precautionary measures are ignored. Thus, she argued, any attempt to reduce the dangers associated with drug use should be backed at a policy level.

Perhaps for our project, the most constructive aspect was the audience participation. By allowing the public to interact with experts in an open setting, we became facilitators of two important - and interrelated - discussions: first, we introduced the potential of Synthetic Biology to the public and experts alike, and, in turn, the public and experts shared their opinions and concerns about how Synthetic Biology should interact with wider society. Second, by simply holding a free and public debate on drug use, we drew much needed attention to an issue that continues to impact Edinburgh and cities worldwide, hopefully drawing it closer to the public conscious and positive reform. Below, click on an external link to our youtube video to check out the panel discussion:

Debate Video