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Nuffield Council on Bioethics Biotechnologies Report

by Jonny Hankins [1], 18 January 2013

In December of last year the Nuffield Council on Bioethics [2] published a report entitled Emerging Biotechnologies: technology, choice and the public good. In this post Jonny Hankins reviews the report and its findings and recommendations.

According to the guide that accompanies the report, it 'is intended to stimulate thinking in a variety of contexts in which the conditions that influence the development of biotechnologies are set (research, policy, regulation and business), and about how those contexts interact.

The report is structured firstly into 2 parts, with each part containing chapters. The first identifies features and challenges that are common among emerging biotechnologies, and develops an ethical approach for responding to these. The second part of the report examines how these features of emerging biotechnologies generate difficulties within a number of different contexts - research, policy, regulation and business - and how responses to these, in turn, shape their emergence.

I would like to briefly outline each chapter in turn using the authors' summaries of each chapter.

Part 1
The Biotechnology wager (Chapter 1)
Choices about how different biotechnologies are supported and governed have significant consequences for the pursuit of national priorities and meeting global challenges in healthcare, food, energy, the environment and the economy. But prospective biotechnologies will not necessarily develop along predictable paths. They emerge in a complex set of conditions and constraints, only some of which can be foreseen or controlled.

Biotechnology promises and expectations (Chapter 2)
There is often a mismatch between our expectations of emerging biotechnologies and our experience of biotechnology emergence. Policy and governance are nevertheless strongly informed by expectations and visions of the future. This underlines the importance of focusing on the way in which emerging biotechnologies are represented in the contexts in which key decisions are made.

The threefold challenge of emerging biotechnologies (Chapter 3)
Emerging biotechnologies are characterised by uncertainty, ambiguity and transformative potential. These characteristics make it difficult to arrive at a universal rational basis for commitment to particular biotechnologies, areas of biotechnology or indeed biotechnology at all, as means of pursuing social objectives. These characteristics should be explicitly recognised when commitments to biotechnology pathways are being considered.

Public ethics and the governance of emerging biotechnologies (Chapter 4)
Public interest in emerging biotechnologies suggests that they should be subject to a 'public ethics' rather than the protection of different individual interests. This can be put into practice as a 'public discourse ethics' through the cultivation of a number of important procedural and institutional virtues. Public discourse ethics offers a practical way of responding collectively to the threefold challenge of emerging biotechnologies through 'public' decision making, orientated by pursuit of the public good.

Part 2
Public perspectives (Chapter 5)
The governance of emerging biotechnologies in accordance with public ethics involves an engagement between different values, understandings and visions. All approaches to public engagement have advantages and limitations, and while such engagement can be highly beneficial, we recognise that decisions about the conditions under which engagement takes place always involve dilemmas.

Research (Chapter 6)
Biotechnology research has a public dimension that entails responsibilities of candour and public reasoning. The participation of researchers in public discourse, for example, as communicators and government advisors requires them to resist pressures to inflate expectations of societal and economic impact, or to gloss over uncertainties and complexities associated with emerging biotechnologies and the innovation system.


Research and Innovation Policy (Chapter 7)
The emphasis on economic outcomes in research policy detracts from reflection on other important ethical values and is itself founded on insecure assumptions that require more examination. In emerging biotechnologies, policies should foster diversity of technological research while continuing support for innovation should be determined more prominently by social values rather than by market values alone.

Regulation (Chapter 8)
Established regulatory systems may be maladapted to emerging biotechnologies, and the anticipation of downstream regulatory constraints may exert a negative selective pressure on them. Regulating emerging biotechnologies for the public good is not a matter of better regulatory design but requires reflection, engagement and adaptation to mitigate against undesirable crowding out or locking in of biotechnologies.

Commercialisation (Chapter 9)
Markets often fail as effective mechanisms for organising resources in order to fulfil social objectives. In addition to the selection of the most promising and desirable biotechnologies by political, industrial and scientific elites, and leaving commercial competition to determine which innovators and innovations survive in the marketplace, social values can play a role in the shaping and selection of future biotechnologies. One approach could involve the state influencing commercial innovation by directly rewarding the public goods produced by commercial firms in accordance with social priorities determined through public discourse ethics.


Conclusions and recommendations (Chapter 10)

Throughout the report the authors are arguing the need for what they call a 'public ethics'. Many questions are raised about public interest and involvement, the framing of choices and playing down of complexities and analysis of the unknown.

In the conclusion they argue that "the emergence of biotechnologies should be continuously shaped by the environmental conditions of the research and innovation system. And these conditions should not be determined piecemeal but should be established by engagement between diverse interests under terms that orientate them towards the public good. There is a need to cultivate procedural and institutional virtues that encourage this and operational mechanisms to enable it".

The following are statements taken from the conclusion offering a summary of the report's findings:

Commitments to particular technological pathways should be evaluated not only in terms of their expected future impacts but also by comparison to possible alternative pathways; this can help to illuminate obscured assumptions, constraints and mechanisms of the innovation system, and help to identify sites and opportunities for more constructive governance, prioritisation and control.

Expert deliberation and public engagement exercises should report their conclusions not in the form of simple prescriptive findings but as properly qualified 'plural and conditional' advice.

When framing science policy through societal challenges, a 'public ethics' approach should be taken to avoid an overemphasis on technological rather than social solutions to problems with substantial social dimensions.

Public systems for the allocation of research funding should be designed to avoid encouraging researchers to overstep the bounds of their competence when assessing the impacts of their research in non-research contexts.

Those engaging in public discourse should not only accept responsibility for the factual accuracy and completeness of information they present but also use their best endeavours to ensure, through their continued participation in this discourse, that it is appropriately qualified and interpreted when represented by others.

In all cases in which technical advice is sought by policy makers there should be a demonstrable attempt to avoid sole reliance on a limited range of established experts in particular fields.

The determination of biotechnology policy should attend explicitly to diverse perspectives and bodies of evidence rather than privileging a single, quantitative frame of evaluation (such as economic costs and benefits, or costs and benefits reduced to economic values).

There is a need for serious evaluation and assessment of past research policies, both of Government as a whole and of particular public funding bodies, to understand in what conditions, if any, selective approaches to support for biotechnology are plausible.

Policy makers should consider adopting an approach to social objectives that fosters diversity of research approaches, not just within the particular domains of individual funding bodies but across physical and life sciences, and the social sciences, combined with selective conditions of innovation that involve social benefit rather than just market value.

Research policy should be framed not by received assumptions but through continuous engagement with a broad range of societal interests and with the involvement of social actors who can bring understanding of these interests to the joint enterprise of constructing a public frame for research policy decisions.

Consideration should be given to bringing Government research policy and funding bodies under a senior minister (i.e. of Cabinet rank) free from departmental responsibilities to ensure that research properly reflects all the objectives of Government, rather than those of a particular department.

There should be a clearly defined, written and published Governmental research policy against which detailed elements of departmental and other public research policies (such as the approach and methods of funding bodies) may be assessed.

Innovation should be included in corporate social responsibility reports as a separate, specific issue.

Consideration should be given to state interventions in the market for new biotechnologies to secure the social benefits of innovation through direct reward for socially valued innovations.

The report is freely downloadable here [3]at the Nuffield Council for Bioethics website, and the page also leads to video of the Council's 2009 Annual Lecture on Synthetic Biology.

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  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Jonny Hankins
  2. 2] http://www.nuffieldbioethics.org/
  3. 3] http://www.nuffieldbioethics.org/emerging-biotechnologies
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