Excerpts from the Synthesis handbook

Archaeologists of a Future Nature

by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Synthetic Aesthetics

Synthesis participants on a tour of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, led by Joe Cain.
Photo: Melanie Jackson

At the International Commission on Stratigraphy – the group with the burden of officially designating geological time units to define the history of the Earth – members of The Anthropocene Working Group are discussing evidence to define our entrance into a new era: The Anthropocene.

The term, made known by Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen, will literally label a stratum on the Earth’s physical record with our name. This is the Age of Man. Whether its start is calibrated from the first farmers or the Industrial Revolution, our imprint of nuclear waste, dammed rivers, cities, the extinction and the redistribution of species may only be a hint of what is to come.

How will archaeologists of a future nature look back on the impact of synthetic biology? How will they piece together our intentionally designed nature and life, engineered not just in form, but in its very definitions too?

The Dual Use Dilemma

by Professor Brian Rappert, Department of Sociology & Philosophy,  University of Exeter

The relationship between science and security is complex. For decades, concerns about national security have underpinned science and technology policy in countries around the world. And yet, the pace and breadth of scientific developments are often said to challenge the prospects of achieving security. To the extent that science contributes new military technologies, it plays a part in fuelling arms races, producing even more frightening capabilities, and fostering global power asymmetries. The development of atomic and nuclear weapons remain the quintessential example of the indefinite and pained relation between science and security.

Today concerns about the link between science and security are playing out in novel ways in relation to the life sciences. Claims about the revolution in our understanding of a world enabled by modern biotechnology have been accompanied by an unsettling question in the last decade: might the knowledge being gained be used to further—rather than prevent—the spread of disease? In other words, might the life sciences become the death sciences? Discussions of how to prevent some of the most advanced, dangerous, and exciting fields of research from becoming means of destruction have been underlain by a profound question: Are there limits to what scientists should do, say, or even think?

As part of this, new streams of funding, national and international conferences, and policy initiatives are

being launched to enhance the state of ‘biosecurity’. A diverse array of assessments have been put forward about what dangers are associated with the life sciences and what should happen as a result. As with other aspects of security, just what biosecurity should mean and how it can be achieved are complex and contested issues. Concerns about the dual use potential of the life sciences fall under the heading of biosecurity. The notion of ‘dual use’ has been widely employed in the past to refer to technologies with civilian and military applications or, more generally, those technologies that can serve purposes beyond those routinely accorded to them. Today in the context of the destructive implications of the life science, the specific concern is with how emerging knowledge and techniques (as opposed to just the bioagents themselves) might be used to develop biological weapons. The focus then is not so much with how research is carried out, but the outputs of it and how they might be used by third parties.

The purpose of this ‘The Dual Use Dilemma’ session is two-fold: one, to inform participants about current ‘biosecurity’ debates and second, to generate interactive discussion about the merits of proposed policy responses. The topics covered will include a general background on biosecurity, the communication of research, its funding, the oversight of experiments, and the responsibilities of scientists and others. Examples of various national and international measures currently be implemented or considered will be included to generate discussion for would-be synthetic biologists.