Community Outreach Debate
The debate was held on June 24, 2015. The HKUST-Rice iGEM team collaborated with the Rice University Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering (IBB) Girls’ BioScience STEM initiative program. Participants were presented with the following question for the debate: “Is it ethical to treat micro-organisms as a machine for the betterment of agriculture?” After receiving various reading materials for the topic, the participants discussed a few key points to solidify their arguments.
1. To critically examine the ethical and moral landscapes of synthetic biology.
2. To reflect on the benefit and harm conferred by human activities.
3. To assess various attitudes towards the controversies surrounding synbio applications designed to improve people's lives.
“Is it ethical to treat micro-organisms as a machine for the betterment of agriculture?”
Preparation and Affirmative Opening Statement:
Each group took two minutes to present opening statements in support of its assigned stance. The affirmative side pushed for synthetic biology research to harness advancements in technology to create more crops and resources, while reducing pollution.
Negative Opening Statements:
On the contrary, the side against using synthetic biology research for agricultural uses argued that using this type of research would disrupt the natural balance of our ecosystems, which could possibly result in mutant species and other irreversible effects.
The students elaborated on their initial statements for an additional two minutes per argument. Rebuttal and counterargument periods were one minute each.
Free Arguments and Wrap-up
By the end of the debate, most students were still uncertain about whether the use of microorganisms to promote human agricultural practices was definitively right or wrong. The overarching complexities underlying this ethical issue were summarized in a brief wrap-up discussion.
The participants of the debate presented well-reasoned arguments supporting and opposing synthetic biology. The debate analyzed the ethics of using this type of research. Findings included rational, dynamic opinions against using synthetic biology, even if such work could be shown to improve lives. However, the proponents of synthetic biology emphasized that we must learn more by doing research, while acknowledging ethical opposition by putting regulations in place.
In addition, exposing high school girls to new complex ideas and knowledge, including controversial synthetic biology topics, sparked curiosity and interest among the participants. This excitement is essential to support our next generation of college undergraduates and researchers while fostering encouragement for STEM and, specifically, synthetic biology.
The girls filled out a survey at the end of the activity, and this is what they had to say:
“This was a very interesting topic to introduce to us. Thank you for doing this activity! This is what continues to encourage my pursuit in science and reminds me of all its interesting possibilities.”
“This was a very interesting debate; this topic was new to me and gave me a better understanding of what synthetic biology is.”
“The debate was great and it allowed me to consider both sides of experiments and scientific changes in the environment. It opened my mind on how scientists should consider the bigger picture rather than just the goal in mind.”
“I love this activity. Even though I was scared at first, this activity helped me understand certain ethical issues that arise. Everything is constantly changing, and we have to decide when is the right time to stop or continue changing.”
“I had fun! I learned to fight for a side I didn’t support and see from an ‘outsiders view.’ I would like to [learn] more about syn bio and what specifically it is researching.”
“This activity was very educational and thought-provoking.”