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Synthetic biology: Missing the point

Volker ter Meulen warns that if environmental groups and others exaggerate the risks of synthetic biology it could promote over-regulation, which he says happened for genetically modified organisms (Nature 509, 135; 2014). But the point of supporting synthetic biology is not about making sure that science can go wherever it wants: it is about making the type of society people want to live in.

In the United States, for example, the rapid and uncritical introduction of genetically modified organisms prevented debate on issues such as alternative innovation pathways, and the impact on biodiversity and pest resistance. Many believe that these issues would have been better addressed through earlier and broader public discussion of the uncertainties surrounding transgenic organisms (see S. Jasanoff Designs on Nature Princeton Univ. Press; 2005).

In our view, ter Meulen trivializes the role of social scientists in suggesting that they could help the synthetic-biology debate by finding better ways to communicate what scientists think. He also implies that public concern over such technologies and their governance reflects only a failure to understand the science of risk assessment — but this 'deficit model' of public concerns has long been discredited (see A. Irwin and B. Wynne Misunderstanding Science? Cambridge Univ. Press; 1996).

It is not unknown for scientists themselves to foster exaggeration and uncritical acceptance of claims, or to focus on anticipated benefits rather than on risks. This practice may be at the heart of wider public concerns about responsible innovation (see, for instance, go.nature.com/zehpdp).

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Correspondence to Sam Weiss Evans.

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Evans, S. Synthetic biology: Missing the point. Nature 510, 218 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/510218b

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