Project and ethics symposium

"We hosted a symposium, where we informed all interested students about our iGEM project, the iGEM competition in general and synthetic biology and had a talk and an open discussion on the ethical implications of synthetic biology and how to face them."

Insuring the ongoing fast pace of innovation in the “new technologies” (Nano Sciences, Computer Sciences, Life Sciences) and their commercial application is a topic of highest importance for young and optimistic prospective scientists like ourselves. But the triumph of these technologies and the resulting changes in society also beg the question of responsibility and fairness of the outcomes, especially in the field of Life Sciences with its huge ramifications for medicine, agriculture and even national and international security. Many of us are regularly confronted with questions on the ethicality of our work: By laymen and professionals, in discussions on- and offline and also by friends and family.

Life sciences in general and Synthetic biology especially are the subject of controversial public discussions fueled by economic and political interests, religious and moral sensibilities, misinformation and unbridled scientific curiosity. Unsurprisingly large portions of the general public oppose and mistrust further in their mind “unchecked meddling with nature”. It is therefore our responsibility as scientists to reflect on our positions, confront ourselves with objective and maybe not-so-objective criticism and adapt our point of view accordingly. Additionally we cannot underestimate the importance of educating the public about the goals and methods of our research.

In order to practice what we preached in the previous paragraphs we organized a one-day-symposium on biotechnology and ethics on Tuesday, September 1st. It was open to the general public and students from all faculties of the university were invited to attend. We held talks on synthetic biology in general, the concept behind the iGEM competition and biobricks, our project and the plans for Hamburg’s next year’s iGEM participation and the ethics of new technologies. The program was topped off with an interactive discussion with the audience on the current and future role of biotechnology in research and society and the regulatory measures in a place like Germany. Even though many of the participants were not studying Life Sciences and therefore subjected to different experiences and viewpoints than we were, they were interested and open-minded to the topic. They spiced up the discussion by adding their input influenced by their own field of study. The friendly and interactive atmosphere of the event was of course considerably enhanced by the supply of snacks, cakes and cookies.

In retrospect we’re happy to have organized this symposium: it provided us with valuable input and the opportunity to hone our discussion skills. We hope that we have dissipated some of the doubts and reservations a few of our guests had against biotechnology and its application and we plan on hosting a similar but even bigger event next year. After all: in all societies in which the state provides the majority of the research funding it is a scientist’s responsibility to educate the tax-paying layman.

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