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Home > Focus > European Biotechnology and Society Online Seminar Series - Review, Part 2

European Biotechnology and Society Online Seminar Series - Review, Part 2

by Jonathan Hankins [1], 25 November 2020

This is the second part of the review of the European Biotechnology and Society online seminar series. The seminar series website [2] contains details of speakers and topics, as well as much of the materials presented. The first part is here [3].

Seminar 4, 21 October, 2020

The fourth online seminar in the series was held on 21 October, featuring two presentations: Sustainable Co-Production: stakeholders and knowledgeholders, from Ursula Weisenfeld, Cristina Blohm and Antoniya Hauerwaas (Leuphana University of Lüneberg) and Responsible innovation in the Centre for Digital Life Norway, from Trygve Brautaset (Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

The seminar opened with Ursula Weisenfeld introducing her presentation with a description of what co-production actually means within the context of research carried out into tobacco as a sustainable production platform [4] for the natural biopolymer cyanophycin. Co-production in this case implies the production of the biopolymer alongside oil and protein, and not forms of co-production between for example consumers and producers as often used in anthropology and economic sociology.

The speaker described the consortium that carried out the biotechnology research project, composed of two companies and two research groups. The project aims include increasing the value of commercially grown tobacco by enabling its use in the production of products that can substitute fossil fuel raw materials, while establishing new production systems for the biopolymer without additional costs.

The speaker's team in the project had the particular tasks of improving communication within the project, facilitating the integration of stakeholders and knowledgeholders as well as exploring the context regarding related innovations.

The presenter then went on to address some of the challenges the project faced, both technical, bureaucratic and organizational, alongside problems caused by the global COVID pandemic and subsequent travel restrictions.

Weisenfeld then moved on to identifying some of the steps taken to date, including identification of key stakeholders, exploring their interests and concerns and consumer choice analysis, before describing the methodology used and justifications and advantages that underpinned these choices.

The speaker then presented some preliminary results, one of the most interesting being the finding that the fossil fuels problem seems to be taken as more pressing than that of genetic modification (the focus of the project). Public perception of GMO was discussed on both a national and local level (in Argentina where the project is being carried out), with the different dimensions of stakeholder engagement and perspectives on the system from a host of different organizations and groups described in further detail.

In the questions section that followed (that saw the participation of fellow project member Cristina Blohm), problems with gaining access to farmers came to the fore before a broad discussion on how their input may have affected working practices within the project and public perception of GMO on a wider level.

This was a particularly candid and open presentation that really laid bare the research experience, something that was greatly appreciated by both the moderator and participants.

In the second presentation, Centre Leader Trygve Brautaset described the positioning of RRI in the Center for Digital Life Norway [5] and the broader integration of RRI across research in Norway.

RRI is a cross cutting issue in the Center for Digital Life, with the speaker first describing the centre, its goals and ambitions for promoting best practices and trans disciplinarity.

The speaker described the work of the Centre Competence Hub and its involvement in promoting RRI, before raising several questions about RRI in biotechnology and what kind of future is it working towards. He described discussions within the centre about policies for RRI within society and mindful of its societal context explaining how the centre operates in working towards these goals.

The talk Continued with a description of activities that included the very interesting Walkshop approach, that involved participants walking for 8 hours a day in the Norwegian wilderness. The speaker described how questions raised through such an approach included what is of value and how do we value it? How can these values be created and sustained through biotechnology? All of which aimed to provide participants a perspective on current understandings of work, with extremely positive results.

The speaker moved on to reflections on what has worked best at the centre and how working practices have benefited the organization. Advantages cited include the smoother running of the centre in general, helped by trans disciplinarity, the social and natural sciences working closer together as well as the practices drawing interest in the centre as a whole. He then moved on to what has been particularly challenging, describing questions currently being asked about how the centre should proceed. Should RRI be mandatory? Or would it be of greater advantage to pick the willing? Should the term RRI be used at all or are there better ways of framing the concept?

One conclusion drawn however is that RRI must be integrated into biotechnology research, and not be just an added component.

Prompted by the moderator, discussion continued around the problem of how RRI can be positioned within a research centre or University, with problems of resistance from the researchers who sometimes see it as an imposition. The speaker did clarify however that motivation for introducing RRI has been gradually improving, with support coming across the academic spectrum and at all levels.

Questions followed for both sets of speakers, with the issue of the need to mandate RRI forms within research once more coming to the fore.

Seminar 5, 28 October

Seminar 5 on 28 October hosted An ethnographic approach to assess the social impact of a biotechnological intervention in wine: methodological considerations and a pint of results from CoolWine from Mabel Gracia Arnaiz, Veronica Anzil and Lina Casadó (Universitat Rovira i Virgili) and Opening up plant synthetic biology from Jim Haseloff (University of Cambridge).

Anthropologist Lina Casadó opened the seminar with a presentation that focused firstly on methodological aspects and secondly results from fieldwork carried out with the aim of analyzing the social perceptions of biotechnological intervention in wine.

The speaker described the make-up of the Coolwine consortium, before explaining that alcohol content in wine has been getting stroneger in recent years due to climate change, although the wine market for lower alcohol products has been rising. As the market is seen as not ready for a GMO solution, the consortium is working to develop yeast strains that could be used to produce wine with a lower alcohol content.

The aims of the work package that the presenters are carrying out are mapping impact on communities, identification of stakeholders, optimizing the positive impacts of the CoolWine project (while minimizing those negative, and identifying criteria for product acceptability.

After laying out the timeline of the project, the speaker described the methodologies used in detail: Focus groups, sensory evaluation questionnaires, in depth interviews and participant observation techniques were all used, following a broadly anthropological approach.

Casadó then moved on to her analysis, introducing four categories of classification of opinion: Ideas on wine, the CoolWine initiative, market trends and prevention, before offering the results of the discourse analysis. The analysis found that participants felt that the approach could be more environmentally friendly that others but controvercial opinions were also present.

As the project work is ongoing a comprehensive set of results and findings is not possible at this moment. See the CoolWine website [6] for updates.

The second speaker was Jim Haselhoff of Cambridge University, who presented the work of the Open Plant initiative in his presentation entitled Opening up plant synthetic biology.

Open Plant [7] is a joint initiative, funded by various UK research councils and with the aims of developing new tools for synthetic biology, looking at different models for implementation of this kind of new technology through the adoption of more open approaches and standardized resources to promote innovation and interdisciplinary community building.

The speaker explained the need for open approaches with a slide that showed a graph of the number of utility and plant patents over the last 90 years, alongside a breakdown of the companies that own these patents. Large biotechnology companies have increasingly dominated the field following the type of business model favoured by large pharmaceutical companies, demonstrating clearly the lack of broad ownership.

An overview of synthetic biology processes followed, a description that was supported by a comparison between the biological process described and that of electronics, and the role that open culture could have in the biology camp in terms of linking commercial and public domain innovation. The similarities were made very clear, Haselhoff calling for the need for a kind of glue (similar to open source standardized software) built through open standards and technologies.

The speaker then described the project structure in greater detail, the different work packages and some of the advantages (sustainability as a major driver) that following such an approach could bring in social terms and does bring in technical terms.

The speaker then went into the choice made to work with Marchantia Polymorpha, describing not only the technical but also the legal aspects of the work the project is carrying out (for example open sharing of materials).

A crash course in synthetic biology followed, explaining why simple plant systems are so useful due to the fact that traits are carried within relatively small numbers of genes. He showed how gene expression can be visualized in real time, before moving on to an explanation of how high levels of bio-products can be produced.

Haselhoff closed the presentation with a description of a two-tier model for plant biotechnology, rather once again reflecting the similarity between the current computing model of open source with the model that the project is promoting, demonstrating its value in a global (non-North) context. Simple hardware and software (low-code and no-code systems) and their role in the project were also demonstrated, with examples of biomarker workshops, frugal open science and open curriculum for teaching, before concluding with the project's hypothetical roadmap.

Questions for both speakers followed, provoking interesting debate about multidisciplinarity, open technologies and the opportunities they bring, sustainability and open development.

Seminar 6, 4 November

The final seminar in the series was held on 4 November, once more containing two presentations: Implementing RRI: integrating life cycle analysis & stakeholder engagement from Eva Sevigné-Itoiz, Lorenzo Di Lucia, Onesmus Mwabonje and Jeremy Woods (Imperial College London) and Navigating controversy and responsibility in industrial synthetic biology: the cases of Evolva and Ecover by Lotte Asveld (TU Delft).

Unlike the previous seminars this event also had a discussant, Michael Bernstein from Arizona State University and was moderated by Thoko Kamwendo, one of the series organizers.

The seminar opened with Eva Sevigné-Itoiz presenting on behalf of her group. The speaker first explained that she was going to present the work of the Bester project [8] and its decision to integrate lifecycle analysis and stakeholder engagement as a driver for RRI.

After an overview of the project and its partners, the speaker described the role her team played and its understanding and interpretation of RRI practices. The project is working to build a new bio-based value chain for fragrances and other beauty products, using forestry resources and synthetic and systems biology, while comparing the process involved with current fossil-based approaches.

The team's role in the project was described as investigating the social and legal impacts of the different approaches, as well as providing techno-economic performance assessments using and developing their own methodologies and understanding of RRI practices.

The analysis of the life cycle assessment that followed showed how RRI topics and practices are interelated, the speaker then moving on to contextualizing practices within broader social, ethical and legal fields, before presenting a representation of stakeholder groups and lessons learned from the experience.

Trade offs described however include higher costs, but policy priorities seem to support their approach, while location (project setting) was deemed to be of high priority and importance. The description of the life cycle analysis was equally interesting, with system boundaries, multifunctionality and impact categories of particular importance. The use of GMO's and biosafety were not seen as problematic for the public, but transparency was seen as important as was the inclusion of a broad range of social issues. Conflicting ideas on forestry use were also raised before a brief conclusion that included challenges and limitations as well as a plea for advice regarding how far their approach reflects RRI practices.

The second speaker was Lotte Asveld, who presented Navigating controversy and responsibility in industrial synthetic biology: the cases of Evolva and Ecover.

The speaker opened with an introduction in which she explained that she was going to talk about commercial actors who are working towards developing the sustainable use of biotechnology. She described different and broad types of uncertainties in this type of development, institutional, impact and moral.

She then formulated her main question: How can you take responsibility as a commercial innovator in the bioeconomy in the face of uncertainty?

The speaker then summarized a short history of attempts by Ecover and Evolva to make their production more sustainable (ecover wanted to change from palm oil to a modified algae oil). With Evolva the aim was to produce sustainable synthetic vanilla using engineered yeast (and no longer petrochemicals). Both met with a backlash that led to the companies abandoning their development.

The stories demonstrated the different layers of responsibility seen in such developments, highlighting that commercial developers struggle in this situation, suggesting that meta-responsibility maps might help them.

Asveld then explained a diagram that referred to justification (assertive and receptive) and imputation, (forwards looking and backwards looking), producing quadrants of liability, accountability, care and responsiveness, before describing several important dynamics: innovation versus precaution; responsiveness versus accountability; openness and closure and normative versus procedural.

The speaker concluded that meta-responsibility can help specify which responsibilities innovators have, identify possible conflicts and support reflection on those responsibilities.

The speaker closed her presentation with the point however that this does not and should not guarantee a societally acceptable product.

After a series of incisive remarks about the presentations, discussant Michael Bernstein tabled a pair of questions that led to interesting discussion: Where do you think ensuring responsibility in RRI rests? Which resources would be appropriate to help them? Both speakers addressed these and many other issues in an entertaining closing discussion, before Kamwendo closed the event and series.

This was e very entertaining, enjoyable and informative seminar series, a fact that was borne out by the consistently good attendance and interaction between all of those present. It was well prepared and organized, with presentations and zoom video made available via the website [9] each week (before the next seminar), and within which a broad range of topics were addressed from an equally widely drawn group of speakers. The materials are currently online and well worth browsing through.

The Bassetti Foundation and myself personally would like to thank and congratulate the organizers Thoko Kamwendo, Robert Smith, Ros Attenborough and Boris Vashev, and very much look forward to participating in the next series.


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Links in this document:

  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Jonathan Hankins
  2. 2] https://international.fnr.de/eu-activities/european-projects/european-biotechnology-and-society-online-seminar-series/
  3. 3] /en/focus/2020/10/review_part_1_european_biotech.html
  4. 4] https://www.sustainable-co-production.com/
  5. 5] https://www.digitallifenorway.org/
  6. 6] https://www.cobiotech.eu/funded-projects/1st-call/coolwine
  7. 7] https://www.openplant.org/
  8. 8] https://bester-project.eu/
  9. 9] https://international.fnr.de/eu-activities/european-projects/european-biotechnology-and-society-online-seminar-series/
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European Biotechnology and Society Online Seminar Series - Review, Part 2


Articles by:  Jonathan Hankins
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