Constructing future scenarios as a tool to foster responsible research and innovation among future synthetic biologists

Life Sciences, Society and Policy 14 (1):1-20 (2018)
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The emerging field of synthetic biology, the designing and construction of biological parts, devices and systems for useful purposes, may simultaneously resolve some issues and raise others. In order to develop applications robustly and in the public interest, it is important to organize reflexive strategies of assessment and engagement in early stages of development. Against this backdrop, initiatives related to the concept of Responsible Research and Innovation have also appeared. This paper describes such an initiative: the construction of future scenarios to explore the plausibility and desirability of potential synthetic biology innovations. We guided teams of synthetic biology students who participated in the large international Genetically Engineered Machines competition, in constructing scenarios aimed at exploring the plausibility and desirability of potential synthetic biology innovations. In this paper we aim to examine to what extent, and how, constructing such future scenarios contributes to RRI. In order to do so, we conducted observations and interviews to understand what kind of learning and reflection was promoted by constructing the scenarios in terms of four dimensions, which are discussed prominently in the literature on RRI: anticipation, inclusion, reflexivity and responsiveness. While we focus on how constructing future scenarios can contribute to strengthening RRI at a project level, we also consider how far our experiment may foster RRI in the iGEM competition in general, and perhaps even inspire constructive collaboration between ‘social scientists’ and ‘natural scientists’ in the context of larger scientific research programmes.



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