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Responsible Innovation: Industrial Biotechnology and Engineering Biology

by Jonathan Hankins [1], 3 February 2021

On 25 January 2021, I attended Responsible Innovation: Industrial Biotechnology and Engineering Biology [2]. This was an online event hosted by the Carbon Recycling Network [3], the Nottingham BBSRC/EPSRC Synthetic Biology Research Centre [4], and the ENGICOIN [5] project, in collaboration with the Institute for Science and Society, University of Nottingham.
[6]

As the website states: This open, online event brings together the BBSRC Networks in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy [7], the wider synthetic biology, industrial biotechnology and responsible innovation communities, and eminent speakers from across disciplines and sectors to explore current developments, challenges and opportunities for responsible innovation in industrial biotechnology and engineering biology. Regular readers will know several of the speakers, not least Phil Macnaghten [8], Lotte Asveld [9] and Eleanor Hadley Kershaw [10] whose work has been discussed on this website in the recent past.

After brief opening words from Nigel Minton Director of the Synthetic Biology Research Centre of the University of Nottingham, the Directors of the six UK Research and Innovation (UKRI [11]) Networks in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy (NIBB) offered overviews of their networks. The networks are funded by the BBSRC [12] (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council), with support from EPSRC [13] (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council), who have jointly committed approximately £11 million to fund six unique collaborative Networks in Phase II of the Networks in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy (BBSRC NIBB) from 2019 to 2024.

Saul Purton presented Exploiting the Algal Treasure Trove and the work of the Algae-UK network [14];
Simon McQueen Mason described the work and workings of Biomass refineries and the BBNET Biomass Biorefinery Network [15];
Nigel Minton returned to offer an insight into the work and practices of the Carbon Recycling Network [16];
Nigel Robinson described E3B [17]'s work in Elements of Bio-remediation, Bio-manufacturing & Bio-energy;
Sonia Heaven presented EBNet [18], the Environmental Biotechnology Network and
Ian Graham the HVB [19], High Value Biorenewables Network.

Phil Macnaghten then presented Responsible Innovation: Translating Research Policy into Research Practice, offering a simple model to explain developments that led to the arrival of RI:
Responsibility 1.0, produce reliable and reproducible knowledge.
Responsibility 2.0, Science for Society, but is this sufficient? It seems to create new dilemma.
Responsibility 3.0, Science with and for Society, addressing the Collingridge Dilemma, dynamics of institutionalization, AIRR framework (anticipation-inclusion-reflexivity-responsiveness) and discussion of the kinds of society we want.

Macnaghten was followed by a series of presentations under the heading Work to Date in Responsible Research and Innovation, Industrial Biotechnology and Synthetic Biology.

Eleanor Hadley Kershaw introduced some of the RRI work in the Nottingham Synthetic Biology Research Centre and opened a discussion that was to run through the remaining presentations about language used (above all the use of metaphor) in the RI and RRI debate within and beyond the Biotechnology field.

Lotte Ansveld presented her work previously described here [20] on the cases of Evolva and Ecover and navigating controversy and responsibility.

Joyce Tait discussed Proportioate and Adaptive Governance via her involvement as Technical Author of the Bristish Standards Institute Standard in Responsible Innovation (reported here [21]), addressing questions of industy involvement in its preparation, what companies might gain and what sets it apart from other approaches.

Neil Parry of Unilever closed the morning's discussion with a presentation of Unilever's approach in moving towards more sustainable practices, offering a description of the carbon rainbow model and the Renewable Carbon Initiative [22].

The afternoon sessions were grouped under the title Futures of Engineering Biology and Responsible Innovation.

After brief opening words from the afternoon's Chair Dimitris Papadopoulos, Rowan McKibbin [23] from BBSRC described how the draft for the National Engineering Biology Programme was developed over the course of 2020, before presenting a series of outputs and potential outcomes such as a greener, healthier more sustainable future and a draft business case for the programme.

Lionel Clarke, Co-Chair of the Engineering Biology Leadership Council [24] followed, with The EBLC perspective on the transition from Synthetic Biology to Engineering Biology. Clarke is referring to a name change in his organization that took place last year, but explained that biological engineering can be seen as different to synthetic biology as engineering brings a product, with synthetic biology seen as the platform for the engineering process.

After a short question and answer session, the final panel discussion took place, Thoughts on the Transition from Synthetic Biology to Engineering Biology, and Provocations on Future Possibilities for Engineering Biology, Industrial Biotechnology and Responsible Innovation.

Susan Molyneux-Hodgson [25] spoke first raising questions about the responsibilities for scientists alongside various issues related to the underpinning of engineering approaches, suggesting looking back to the Synthetic Biology Dialogue (2010) [26]. The speaker stressed the need to continue to engage in dialogue and consider the questions the SBD raised, before Nigel Minton [27] offered his thought on the transition from synthetic biology to engineering biology (following on from the earlier discussion on this theme), concluding that the engineering influence puts more emphasis on economic and societal benefit and therefore requires the full integration of RRI.

Sean Simpson [28], Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of LanzaTech [29], described capabilities for catching carbon to create value, including demonstrating packaging made from waste ethanol in a move towards a circular economy, before Megan J. Palmer [30] talked about how RI sits within synthetic biology from both a contemporary and historical perspective, and how its influence and implimentation could be improved.

A lively and productive conversation followed in which many of the issues touched upon in the day's presentations were re-addressed. Returning to Nigel Minton's presentation (and a topic that had occurred throughout the day), questions and responses regarding the geographical uptake and political implications of the use of the term engineering biology opened and successively ran through the discussion, questions about resistance to genetic modification and possible interventions and approaches brought public participation and education into the discussion, while future funding and developments also came to the fore.

A perspective from the social science brought RRI frameworks squarely into the spotlight, bringing discussion of possible changes in approaches that included the need for more case studies and integration into the accepted frameworks. The panel then concluded with a short discussion of the influence of market change, before Eleanor Hadley Kershaw and Dimitris Papadopoulos summarized and closed the event.

This was an extremely well run and interesting event with an ambitionus agenda. Congratulations and thanks to all of those involved.

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Links in this document:

  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Jonathan Hankins
  2. 2] https://carbonrecycling.net/event/responsible-innovation-industrial-biotechnology-and-engineering-biology/
  3. 3] https://carbonrecycling.net/
  4. 4] https://sbrc-nottingham.ac.uk/sbrc-microbytes/sbrc-microbytes.aspx
  5. 5] https://sbrc-nottingham.ac.uk/associated-projects/engicoin.aspx
  6. 6] https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/iss/
  7. 7] https://bbsrc.ukri.org/research/programmes-networks/research-networks/nibb/
  8. 8] https://www.fondazionebassetti.org/en/focus/2020/10/review_part_1_european_biotech.html
  9. 9] https://www.fondazionebassetti.org/en/focus/2018/06/sustainability_special_issue_o.html
  10. 10] https://www.fondazionebassetti.org/en/focus/2020/10/review_part_1_european_biotech.html
  11. 11] https://www.ukri.org/
  12. 12] https://bbsrc.ukri.org/
  13. 13] https://epsrc.ukri.org/
  14. 14] https://www.algae-uk.org.uk/
  15. 15] https://www.bbnet-nibb.co.uk/
  16. 16] https://carbonrecycling.net/
  17. 17] https://sites.durham.ac.uk/mib-nibb/
  18. 18] https://ebnet.ac.uk/
  19. 19] https://www.highvaluebiorenewables.net/
  20. 20] https://www.fondazionebassetti.org/en/focus/2020/11/european_biotechnology_and_soc.html
  21. 21] https://www.fondazionebassetti.org/it/segnalazioni/2019/10/british_standards_institution_.html
  22. 22] https://renewable-carbon-initiative.com/
  23. 23] https://www.wisb-uow.co.uk/people/rowan-mckibbin/
  24. 24] https://ktn-uk.org/programme/engineering-biology-leadership-council/
  25. 25] https://socialsciences.exeter.ac.uk/sociology/staff/molyneux-hodgson/
  26. 26] https://bbsrc.ukri.org/engagement/dialogue/activities/synthetic-biology/dialogue-background/
  27. 27] https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/cbs/people/nigel.minton
  28. 28] https://www.aiche.org/community/bio/dr-sean-simpson
  29. 29] https://www.lanzatech.com/
  30. 30] https://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/people/megan_palmer
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