Synthetic Biology and Engineering Ethics Workshop Objectives
This workshop was organized by the Synthetic Biology Project of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Center for Engineering, Ethics and Society of the National Academy of Engineering and held on September 29-30, 2010
This workshop poses the question “How can engineering ethics contribute to the positive potential of the new field of synthetic biology?” It brings together synthetic biology researchers and experts in engineering ethics and science and technology studies (STS), to examine how research and educational activities can help to achieve those positive goals. William Wulf, former president of the National Academy of Engineering, recently said that “The complexity of newly engineered systems coupled with their potential impact on lives, the environment, etc., raise a set of ethical issues that engineers have not been thinking about.” This statement is notably relevant to the new field of synthetic biology, where biologists and engineers do research and develop applications.
The timing for starting a cross-field exploration of the ethical implications of synthetic biology is fortuitous. Following the May 2010 announcement that scientists had created a self-replicating cell containing an entirely synthetic genome, President Obama asked the Bioethics Commission to study the implications of this technology, to issue a report within six months, and to recommend any actions it thinks the federal government should take to maximize benefits and minimize risks associated with this technology, while identifying appropriate ethical boundaries.
Synthetic biology presents a unique opportunity for ethical reflection. Other areas of biology have been the subject of intense ethical scrutiny (ie, the Human Genome Project and genetic engineering). Synthetic biology research draws much more on trained engineers who are strangers to the ‘bioethics’ debates; their activities and those of biologists building genetic structures in laboratories have not to date been the subject of intense public controversy, but members of both groups recognize that the potential for public concern exists. The intersection of engineering with biology raises the possibility that engineering ethics may provide a useful and new perspective on synthetic biology. Building on research and findings in engineering ethics and STS may help lead to more socially responsible trajectories for its direction, development, implementation, and evaluation.
This workshop provides an interdisciplinary arena and trading zone for both synthetic biology practitioners and academic professionals engaged in the ethical training of new engineers. From these two perspectives, the workshop can explore readiness to address the ethical and social issues associated with synthetic biology. On the one hand, the workshop will help determine whether the biologists and engineers involved in synthetic biology are being adequately prepared to identify and address ethical issues early and effectively and, if not, what steps need to be taken to address gaps. On the other hand, the meeting will raise ethical questions about who should set standards for synthetic biology as well as how ethical reflection should be integrated with early research and development.
The outcomes of the workshop are intended to include innovative research and development of teaching modules/new curricula with perspectives from the engineering ethics and synthetic biology communities. The workshop is an opportunity to jump-start a new area of research – at the boundary between engineering, biology, engineering ethics and STS – that would be profitable not only for better pedagogy, but also for future policies. Target audiences for outcomes of the workshop include decision-makers, institutional experts and funding agencies that need a clear perspective on the ethical challenges of synthetic biology. The outcomes of the workshop will also be useful in informing stakeholders in general—including the public—about potential societal and ethical issues surrounding it.
Cite this page:
"Synthetic Biology and Engineering Ethics Workshop Objectives"
Online Ethics Center for Engineering
National Academy of Engineering
Accessed: Thursday, May 23, 2013