Comments on Synthetic Biology and Engineering Ethics - Michael Loui
Author(s): Michael C. Loui
Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Two questions about synthetic biology and engineering ethics that seem key to developing socially responsible synthetic biology:
- Engineering codes of ethics emphasize competence in undertaking assignments: engineers should practice only areas of technical competence, as qualified by education or experience. How can engineers participate in synthetic biology when they do not have the technical competence?
- Engineering is devoted to the economical production of safe and useful objects, to serve the public good. All engineering codes of ethics prioritize the safety of the public. Obviously engineers would strive to ensure the safety of any products of synthetic biology. When risks are poorly understood, and there are few standards for safety factors, engineers usually insist on safety features: for example, large containment vessels for nuclear reactors. Engineers also install monitoring devices, they collect data, and they introduce modifications to continually improve the safety of their products. How can engineers assist synthetic biologists when it is difficult to determine the risks, and when no safety standards exist?
Initial personal reflection on collaborations between engineering ethics and synthetics biology:
- Does engineering ethics have anything to say about synthetic biology? Does synthetic biology pose any new questions for engineering ethics?
- Synthetic biology is evidently not an engineering activity in the usual sense because
- The field seems to lack technical standards such as safety standards
- Practitioners do not hold professional licenses, which would certify that they have a minimum level of technical competence
- The experience base is insufficient to reliably estimate time and costs for large projects
The third point suggests an important distinction between science and engineering: the concern for economics and efficiency. This concern distinguishes synthesis in organic chemistry from process design in chemical engineering. Put another way, while engineering is characterized by the design and manufacture of new devices and processes, not all who create are engineers. I can build a tool shed in my back yard, but I am not a civil engineer. If you want to build a skyscraper, you need a team of engineers.
- At this time, synthetic biology resembles synthetic organic chemistry rather than engineering design. Once synthetic biology reaches the point of large-scale production, with large expenditures for people and materials, it would become an engineering activity. To speculate on the ethics of engineering problems posed by production-level synthetic biology seems premature to me.
I might modify my positions after I study more of the background readings and I participate in the workshop.
Activities and materials for ethics training in synthetic biology:
- Students should learn about important historical cases, because real stories are memorable. In human subjects training, for example, students typically learn about the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. For synthetic biology, students should learn about the recombinant DNA controversy, which raised similar concerns about creating artificial life, and the Asilomar Conference of 1975 that set guidelines for recombinant DNA research. These guidelines responded sensibly and creatively to fears of both scientists and the public. Students should also learn about the controversy over genetically modified organisms, and perhaps the differences in the American and European experiences.
- Students should develop the skill to explain technological risks to the public. Risk communication is a difficult task that goes beyond explaining the technical meaning of mathematical probabilities.
- Students in synthetic biology should receive training in the canonical areas of the responsible conduct of research: the ethics of mentoring, collaboration, authorship, peer review, data management, conflict of interest, intellectual property, and so on. In particular, students should learn about the controversy over patents for subject matter derived from biological materials and the Diamond v. Chakrabarty decision.
Cite this page:
"Comments on Synthetic Biology and Engineering Ethics - Michael Loui"
Online Ethics Center for Engineering
National Academy of Engineering
Accessed: Friday, December 06, 2013