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Home > Focus > European Biotechnology and Society Seminar Series 2021 - Review, Part 2

European Biotechnology and Society Seminar Series 2021 - Review, Part 2

by Jonathan Hankins [1], 16 July 2021

(...continues from the previous entry [2])

Week 3

The third week of the seminar series opened with Felix Müller of Evonik Operations GmbH presenting HotSolute: Sustainability from the view of the chemical industry.

Through the lens of the HotSolute project [3], Müller presented the interests and actions carried out by the chemical giant Evonik in its transition towards becoming a sustainable entity. The speaker brought some real data to light that made me rethink what I was listening to: Evonik is a 12 billion Euro a year chemical giant that generates 2 billion through biotechnology. This makes the biotech arm (working to reduce environmental impact through biotech) one of the largest and therefore a world leader in its field.

Following on from earlier discussion in the series, the speaker addressed the question of how sustainability might realistically be defined (given the enormous range of aspects and factors involved), before presenting the World Economic Forum global report list of top risks, pointing out that 20 years ago most were risks related to business, but that today environmental risks are the most prevalent.

Müller then went on to explain the company sustainability strategy based on sustainability and foresight, with both growth engines focused on sustainability integrated into strategic management processes and improved reporting forming part of the framework.

One of the measures taken as part of this strategy is the reduction of Co2, not only in the production process but also in power supply and downstream, with the aim of reducing emissions between 2008 and 2025 by 50%. This involves the modernization of their power plant, disuse of coal and water use reduction.

The speaker used the UN Sustainable Development Goals to demonstrate the company's top 10 sustainability targets and a broad set of goals: a strategy to bring more women into governance, sustainability in value chains and production, risk assessment, environmental reductions, occupational health and safety to name but a few.

He also noted that every euro of investment produces more than 4 Euros of added value for society as well as producing positive results in public revenue, while oversight allows them to calculate how much each technological development reduces emissions throughout the life-cycle.

Müller closed with a couple of everyday examples of the work of the HotSolute project, one in feedstock and another in cosmetics, outlining cost and risk advantages as well as describing the processes that he calls 'moving beyond chemistry' in more detail.

Ana Maria Delgado Aleman
of the TIK Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture, University of Oslo, was the second presenter with Acting responsibly through openness? Reflections on open science, in which she questioned the relationship between responsibility and openness.

Opening with a historical account of policy developments in Europe, the speaker pointed to the publication Taking European knowledge Society Seriously [4] as an example of a precursor for recent RRI experiments in participation and engagement as it laid the foundations for concepts such as technological citizenship.

During the 2010's, RRI developed bringing a turn in policy away from politics, citizenship and a people focused approach, into research ethics. The speaker described how concerns moved towards developing good science and technology, with an effective move in focus from publics to scientists.

In short, scientists became the focus of research policies.

Parallel to this development policy emphasis moved towards the ideas of open science and open access, but the speaker suggested that she sees difficulties in connecting openness to responsibility.

Openness is presented as a policy term, as a scientific duty towards the public, an instrumental value. Following this line open science needs a public to make it legitimate, a need for public experiments, a performance of transparency and legitimation. She gave several examples of how architecture reflected this show analogy, citing the Crystal palaces as examples of transparency, arguing that the front of house and the back-stage of science play together in the name of legitimation.

Present day forms include the scientific journal with its peer review system, representing remote witnessing and becoming the dominant platform for knowledge distribution. The speaker also refered to the move towards specialization that this brought, before moving on to discuss knowledge globalization through global databases and Internet use in a move from demonstration to pro-user approaches and from experimental reproducibility to reusability.

Good Science is not only reproducible but should produce data that others can reuse in other locations.

Delgado also discussed openness as a business model, sharing and transparency as ethical requirements, before offering several interesting (eye-opening) quotes from scientists in labs, drawing the conclusion that they are happy to talk about open science and data and see acting responsibility is depositing data in centres, but raising the question of why this is responsible.

A further responsibility suggested is that of making things easy for industry, the speaker arguing that this excludes thinking about redistributing benefits, an issue she continued with as she analized the FAIR principles arguing that they are prescribed an ethical meaning, but that the acronym is misleading as it is not about distributing benefits at all.

FAIR is not fair!

Delgado concluded with a set of stimulating questions that led to an interesting public discussion: can research ethics be inbuilt in data infrastructures? How is enabling access really responsible? Is this really transparency or commodification?

Week 4

This event opened with Environmental ethics by committee by Tess Doezema of the Munich Centre for Technology in Society, TU Munich

Doezema discussed the problem of how ethical issues can be addressed and guidelines and practices developed when dealing with other than human subjects (plants) and the broader natural world (the Earth), bearing in mind that the typical approaches used today are largely based on informed consent.

The speaker used the Earth BioGenome Project [5] as a vehicle for the discussion, beginning with the question above before explaining how bioethics guidelines had largely grown out of crisis (experiments on humans during WW2 as an example), with standardized practices developed with the goal of maintaining legitimacy. One example is that of the ELSI or ELSA approach (Ethical, Legal and Social Implications/Aspects), but as the speaker explained these types of approaches cannot be seamlessly applied to the governance of nature.

Guidelines are not easy to make in the move from human to natural genomes, with animal treatment ethics the only well developed field, the speaker raising the question of what nature ethics should look like and asking if we find ourselves in a new moment for normative framework creation, one that goes beyond depicting science as at risk from politics but addresses broader questions of governance.

The speaker then moved on to analyze the EarthBioGenome Project in greater depth, showing how the project proposes itself as salvatory for the natural world, describing how this framing embeds and advances a particular ethical vision that involves the construction of globality and a global scientific community working on a global scale with global implications.

The project aim of sequencing all living organisms leads to a type of Noah's ark idea (with plenty of visuals used by the mainstream press to hammer the point home), but what might the advantages be of such a project? The speaker explained that the line proposed is to save genetic sequencing of organisms that face extinction (for future De-extinction), a logic that is repeated throughout the project.

Doezema questions whether de-extinction causes ethical blindness, whether it could be harmless or whether it would actually advance conservation, pointing out that a species is more than a genome, it is social and environmental.

In a theme that has run through this series, the presenter pointed out that market growth is once again a project goal, as solutions to humanity are framed through DNA sequencing: the global sale of DNA benefits everyone.

The speaker concluded with some thoughts on the transformative capacities of technology and markets, arguing that ELSI approaches should be able to raise these issues while ethics for the environment needs to be embedded and not seen as a side-show.

A fascinating talk that brought Joni Mitchell and her tree museum to mind.

The Second speaker was Tom McLeish from the University of York who asked the suggestive question Can science be more like music?

McLeish opened his presentation with an overview of the background for this metaphoric discussion based upon both his interpretation of the framing of infrastructure in politics and the Reimaging Science project [6] run by the Royal Society.

He explained the motivation behind the music metaphor by describing what he sees as a fundamental difference between music and science: unlike music, science does not have a continuous ladder between practitioners and the rest of the world. Although there are musicians that operate at the highest level of specialization (similar to scientisits), a lay person can easily discuss music. In order for this to happen in science however the bandwidth of scientific understanding must be increased.

The speaker went on to discuss a quote taken from research carried out in schools: 'I didn't chose science because it isn't creative', explaining how this commonly held assumption provided the basis for the foundation of the Royal Society project and defined its aims (to demonstrate that science is fueled by imagination).

In a series of statements about RRI the speaker argued that the public engagement approach will not work if science is shut in a little silver box or is not seen as human, offering several examples from 19th century literature and poetry of critique of science and its objectification of the world. McLeish then went on to offer examples of how science is based on shared imagination, arguing that this has to be made known to the wider public.

He then described commonalities, offering a creative narrative that can be applied to both music (and other art forms) and science: Vision, the desire to represent or understand, attempts to succeed, failure, the upwelling of an idea from the subconscious, aesthetic and emotional responses.

McLeish then demonstrated similarities to and the relationship with novel writing, comparing the language used in science investigation and art investigation books before describing a further set of commonalities: the use of the visual in art and scientific imagination, textual similarities, the use of metaphor and abstraction.

The speaker wrapped up with a short description of the parallel development of the modern novel and that of scientific methodology in the 16-1700's, before concluding with a question: What does this metaphor approach open up for the social framing of scientific projects?

Week 5

The final event in the seminar series was organized slightly differently. The special Responsible innovation as social learning in ERA CoBioTech session opened with a joint presentation from Robert Smith from the University of Edinburgh and Thoko Kamwendo of Durham University, in which the speaker (Smith) opened the backstage curtains to reflect upon the experience of working within the ERA CoBioTech [7] project.

Smith presented the background to the group's work from the starting point of a meeting within which the problem of introducing RRI to the project was discussed. The perspective offered focused on what the members of the group learned during the project and how they designed the paths they followed in its development.

The question of why they chose to participate was a particular focus, as were their feelings about the task they were given of developing a framework for the inclusion of RRI. Smith described their move from rigid ideas of a framework aimed at setting goals to looking more at the people involved in the project and their push towards taking a more evaluative perspective within the funding process.

Reservations about whether they are missing the bigger picture led to a focus on agenda setting and power and the suggestion that the process would need rethinking if a broader perspective is to be gained.

Elena Hadley Kershaw (who regular readers will know [8]) followed with a look back on RRI within European Biotechnology in which she examined the context of her work experience. The speaker opened with an introduction to her workplace, the University of Nottingham Synthetic Biology Research Centre and several of the projects hosted there, including the BIOMETCHEM [9] project (that she reported on in the previous seminar series [10]) before presenting the ENGICOIN [11] project. She went on to explain that the format of the funding call that led to the project's creation and development led to RRI finding itself largely positioned within dissemination and public acceptance rather than underpinning the project design, before expressing her wish to shift away from matters of social impact and public acceptance and move towards thinking about RI principles and the 4 keys.

Hadley Kershaw concluded by describing some of the difficulties faced in working within such a large project and a series of lessons that the team had learned from the experience.

The final presentation of the series was given by Joanne Benton and Jose Jimenez Zarco from Imperial College London.

Jimenez Zarco spoke first, offering an overview of the Microbial Integration of Plastics in the Circular Economy (MIPLACE [12]) project, before describing the team's RRI and stakeholder work over the last year. The project sits within a circular economy framework and aims to reuse household plastic waste that (after several cycles) can no longer be recycled, for use as plastic feedstock for materials such as building insulation.

Benton then took the helm in describing their RRI work within the project, starting with an overview of RRI itself before describing how the project addressed stakeholder engagement (seen as fundamental to RRI).

She then went on to describe the BESTER [13] project, explaining that her team had taken advice from members of the consortium and are now collaborating in conducting cradle to grave life cycle analysis within the MIPLACE project, in order to evaluate environmental impact and provide suggestions for improvement.

The speaker went into further detail, describing Identifying stakeholder groups whom they then asked for feedback on the project's approach before outlining its methodology, including the creation of a storyboard that will be sent before interview and an overview of the guided but open ended questions to be posed during interview (theis project is still in its early stages and so very much a work in progress).

Benton concluded with a small section on how they are going to proceed.

All of which left plenty of time for a host of interesting questions about (amongst other things) difficulties in stakeholder engagement and problems to be addressed within the funding system, many of which were answered by each of the presenters individually.

This was a very interesting series that presented arguments from a host of perspectives and disciplines. Problems surrounding the concept and practices proposed by RRI were addressed throughout within a broad range of contexts, the choice of speakers offered a voice to a host of different stakeholders within the field and each session was beautifully run and moderated.

Once again the Bassetti Foundation would like to thank and congratulate the series 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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  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Jonathan Hankins
  2. 2] /en/focus/2021/06/review_part_1_european_biotech_1.html
  3. 3] http://hotsolute.com/
  4. 4] https://www.fondazionebassetti.org/en/focus/2008/02/science_and_governance_the_eu.html
  5. 5] https://www.earthbiogenome.org/
  6. 6] https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/projects/reimagining-science/
  7. 7] https://www.cobiotech.eu/
  8. 8] https://www.fondazionebassetti.org/en/focus/2021/02/responsible_innovation_industr.html
  9. 9] https://www.cobiotech.eu/funded-projects/1st-call/biometchem
  10. 10] https://www.fondazionebassetti.org/en/focus/2020/11/european_biotechnology_and_soc.html
  11. 11] https://engicoin.eu/
  12. 12] https://miplacebio.com/
  13. 13] https://www.cobiotech.eu/funded-projects/1st-call/bester
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European Biotechnology and Society Seminar Series 2021 - Review, Part 2
Articles by:  Jonathan Hankins
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