In this, the first of two posts, I would like to offer a brief overview of how the first half of the European Biotechnology and Society online seminar series panned out. The seminar series website contains details of speakers and topics, as well as much of the materials presented.
Seminar 1: 30 September 2020
The first seminar was held on 30 September 2020, and featured two speaker presentations: Diverse routes to dissemination and engagement in MeMBrane, from Alan Goddard (Aston University) and Breaking the impasse: Towards a forward‐looking governance framework for gene editing with plants from Phil Macnaghten (Wageningen University) and Michelle Habets (Rathenau Instituut).
After a brief introduction to the series and the ERA CoBioTech additional activities programme, Alan Goddard introduced and described the MeMBrane project (MEmbrane Modulation for BiopRocess enhANcEment).
MeMBrane is a three-year ERA CoBioTech project with academic and industrial partners across Europe aiming to engineer, and validate at pilot scale, robust host strains that overcome the toxic effects of biomanufacturing by tuning their membrane composition to resist these stresses. The project is funded by national funders BBSRC, NWO, MINECO and Jülich and based at Aston University (UK).
Goddard described how the MeMBrane project aims to improve the tolerance of microbes to the stresses encountered during industrial bioprocesses by modifying the cell membranes. Working with yeast and Propionibacterium, the project uses synthetic biology to progress and exploit understanding of toxicity challenges, to improve efficiency and product yield of engineered cell-based factories.
In describing the project, the speaker explained the process of setting up the project in practical terms, from branding the website and social media to the involvement (and skill sets) of a broad group of researchers and related personnel.
One repeated call he made was to involve people who are artistic, the project making use of artistic experience and networks from within the group to run a photographic competition, produce a simple board game and commission and release a song (UK folk group MEGSON wrote and published Using Biology).
A major component of the approach is a citizen science project in which members of the general public are asked to send in their used yeast. Adapted from the website:
We’re trying to find out what makes some yeast able to withstand more alcohol or sugar than others. By understanding what makes some strains more tolerant we can potentially develop improved strains that may produce stronger beers or wines or be suitable for biofuel production. The first step is to identify a really tolerant strain, and that’s where you come in!
Contact us for a sample kit, fill in an application form and send us your yeast, whether it’s from a sour dough starter or a bottle of beer, send it to us free of charge, and we’ll test its alcohol and sugar tolerance. Results will be posted on our online leader board and the provider of the winning yeast will win a prize.
Back in the laboratory
After receiving your samples, we streak them on to nutrient-rich agar plates and allow them to grow for a few days inside a 30oC incubator. When we see colonies growing on the plate, we transfer a random single colony into nutrient-rich liquid, allowing further time for growth inside a heated, shaking incubator. We test the tolerance of your yeast by transferring droplets of the liquid sample to agar plates varying in the concentration of alcohol or sugar. The samples of yeast are ranked from best to worst at surviving in hostile conditions.
Very interesting and undoubtedly fun!
Phil Macnaghten (who regular readers will know) talked us through the recently published open-access article Breaking the impasse: Towards a forward‐looking governance framework for gene editing with plants, (Phil Macnaghten and Michelle G.J.L. Habets).
The main topics addressed related to the governance of gene editing with plants, with the authors calling for a forward-looking form of governance. Macnaghten argued that society has come to an impasse, with pro and anti-modification parties taking entrenched positions in the debate.
He described how society had arrived at this impasse, raising the question (and some suggestions) of how it could be bridged. Macnaghten offered an overview of lessons that should be learned from the process that led to these positions, pointing (amongst other things) to problems of restricted public involvement in the process but also the evolution of different approaches to regulation (allowing developments to be seen as colonizing force), and the influence of NGOs in the developing debate.
Much more detail is available in the article itself through the link above.
The seminar closed with a host of interesting questions from the virtual floor that led to the development of a debate between the speakers about the purposes and real aims of public involvement in scientific research.
Seminar 2: 7 October 2020
Alfred Noordmann opened the second seminar with a presentation entitled Provenance assessment as a method for integrating RRI into the research process, co-authored with his TU Darmstadt colleague Janine Gondolf.
After a short introduction to provenance assessment, Noordmann introduced and recounted two stories, one of RRI and the second of genome editing and precision breeding.
The seminar website contains the slides used which are easy to follow and narrate the story beautifully, so I will not go into too much detail here but recommend them to readers.
The speaker raised various questions about ideas that underpin RRI:
• does RRI assure desirable outcomes? no.
• does RRI set thresholds or limits? no.
• are the results of RRI-guided research better than those that neglect ethical and public concerns? not necessarily.
But (or maybe therefore) origins are important!
Noordmann raised the question of how we can judge seemingly identical outcomes, offering the example of genome editing.
From one perspective, genome editing is indistinguishable from mutagenesis, so can be seen as precision breeding. But as we might imagine, as a practice it is very different. Some argue that if the results of a process are indistinguishable provenance doesn’t matter and should not be considered. You cannot tell a difference in the result after all.
Proponents of RRI would argue however that provenance should be important. The speaker analyzes the two stances: In the case of genome editing the question is raised of whether the practice should be described as engineering or not. It does involve cutting (to use a generic terms) and this could be seen as engineering.
As the speaker noted, ignoring provenance is a difficult sell here, as there appear to be clear differences between breeding techniques and genome editing. Within RRI provenance is important. Judgements are made about a product by looking at the production process (think about fair trade labeling as an everyday example). This leads to conflicting positions.
As Noordmann succinctly puts it:
(1) if the results of research are physically or materially indistinguishable, their genesis or provenance doesn’t matter, it need not and should not be considered
(2) if the results of research are physically or materially indistinguishable, they can and should be distinguished by considering their genesis or provenance in order to judge the research process.
If the two results are indistinguishable, they can still be judged in terms of provenance, or in other words the research process. The speaker argues that we shouldn’t be afraid to do this. Judging is more than just sticking a label on to a packet, it is about appreciating the qualities of the process, and we should embrace it.
The seminar’s second presentation was Responsible innovation and transformative innovation policy as frameworks for research funding policy, from Cecilie Mathiesen, Øystein Rønning and Helge Rynning (Research Council of Norway)
As regular readers will know, the Research Council of Norway has played a fundamental role in the long-term development of the concept of RI, with the concept running throughout its mission:
The Research Council works to promote research and innovation of high quality and relevance and to generate knowledge in priority areas to enable Norway to deal with key challenges to society and the business sector.
The presentation was packed with overviews of both policy and process approaches promoted by the Council, with many names and projects that readers will be familiar with (the RRI Practice project for example led by the prolific Ellen Marie Forsberg).
After an overview of Research Council strategy for the coming four years, Helge Rynning described their particular RRI framework (influenced by that of the EPSRC), before introducing a series of bio and nanotechnology projects funded in recent years. An introduction to the work of the RRI Practice consortium followed, before two pilot studies were described, Digital Life Norway and Responsible Research and Innovation in Norway – AFINO
The speaker concluded his section with an explanation of three generations of innovation policy, with the following overview of the third generation, a transformative innovation policy with its own consortium:
• Research and innovation policies must be directed towards critical social, economic and environmental challenges
• Many technologies are deeply implicated in persistent environmental and social problems
• Research and innovation must be responsible and sustainable, often transdisciplinary
• Innovation policies go across siloes (geography, sectors, industries, technologies and disciplines), and include citizens
• It is necessary to develop learning arenas where people from different backgrounds can learn and create together (colearning, cocreation, coproduction).
The virtual floor was then taken by Cecilie Mathiesen, who described a series of RRI engagements within European Research and Innovation Frameworks. She explained that Norway has had a clear impact on the Horizon program (Norway has long been seen as a leader, not least due to its history in Health Technology Assessment), offering several examples of how their approaches have become so influential.
The presentation slides contain more details and are available through the series website.
Seminar 3: 14 October
Seminar 3 opened with RRI in ERA CoBioTech: Challenges and Opportunities of Using Lego Serious Play, from Carmen McLeod, Stevienna de Saille and Eleanor Hadley Kershaw.
Carmen McLeod opened the presentation with an overview of the work of the BioMetCem consortium (Sustainable production of added value chemicals from SynGas-derived methanol through Systems and Synthetic Biology approaches).
The scientific aims of the projects were a proof of concept – engineering strains of Eubacterium linosum towards production of HV chemicals, with the speaker explaining that the team had inherited the BioMetChem and RRI workpackage with limited resources to conduct three workshops:
1. Introduction to RRI (Kick-off meeting) – LSP workshop exploring individual ideas of responsibility in the BioMetChemproject (Nottingham)
2. Civil society – What do people think about the social & environmental responsibilities in BioMetChem? (Manchester)
3. Mid-project workshop with project partners, mapping RRI in the progress & innovation context of BioMetChem (Toulouse)
The aims were To facilitate reflection on values and ideas of ‘responsibility’ in BioMetChem, moving beyond the question of who has responsibility for risk or project management, to Incorporate the bigger picture -Science and Society (and society in science) and to explore and compare scientific and public perspectives and expectations about the project.
Stevienna de Saille explained that the workshops were conducted using LEGO Serious play, describing a host of advantages brought by such an approach. The speaker went on to describe an ARIA in 6 keys framework, before going into more detail about the experience of each individual meeting.
The presentation contained several quotes from participants that gave great insight into the process, supported by explanations of how the lego sets were used and discussions and questions the play provoked.
The final question of how to enact RRI within this landscape led to a discussion of how responsibility could be mapped within the project, leading on to a series of reflections on successes and challenges faced, closing with lessons learned for future project design:
1. Commit to and value responsible research and innovation
2. Support tailored approaches
3. Find an appropriate form of integration
4. Go beyond projects. Funding for RRI practices is usually time-limited, discrete, and at the project level where it is challenging to address systemic issues (e.g. funding priorities or IP regimes).
In the discussion that followed the speakers analyzed the use of LEGO Serious play as a tool for RRI, concluding that it is a promising approach that must be accompanied by mechanisms for early and ongoing integration and responsiveness, and resourced sufficiently.
The seminar continued with a second pair of speakers. “What are we talking about? Understanding how context matters for assessing biotech innovations in agriculture” was presented by Amy Clare and Ruth Müller, of the Munich Center for Technology in Society from TU Munich.
Amy Clare opened the presentation by explaining how the research consortium FORTiGe that they both worked within had been set up and devoped before describing their Public Imaginations of Genome Editing in Livestock research and presenting some of the data produced.
The focus of the project is to investigate possibilities for gene editing applications in Bavaria that could improve the health and welfare of livestock. The project research group includes small scale breeders as well as genetic researchers and breeder associations, giving a particular local face to the project.
After an overview of green biotechnology in Germany, the speaker described the projects vision for gene editing technologies.
The second part of the presentation described the methodology (based on focus groups in a scenario based approach). The scenarios were avian flu, a universal cow, and xenotransplantation. This involves the modification of chickens to improve resistance, of cows to enable the use of all of their entirety, and pigs to maximize provision of organs for transplant.
Their particular approach questioned how various publics relate to CRISPR and how they build their positions. They found four different positions, analyzing how the groups saw themselves and saw and described the other groups.
The data appears to show that none of the groups seem to focus on the technology itself, but on narratives related to their use. Each group was also critical of aspects of the other groups, even though within the groups these aspects did not come to the fore. As the speaker noted ‘they seemed to speak past each other’. Clare described this as technologies being diffracted through individual lifeworlds and positions.
Ruth Müller took the lead in answering comments, explaining how the speakers had become involved in the project and the influence of the breeding associations in the research.
The seminar series has been extremely well run, with presentation materials and supporting documents made available in the week after each seminar. The speakers have all been interesting and kept to their time slots, which has allowed plenty of time for questions and debates. Robert Smith has moderated beautifully, taking the lead in questioning when necessary and making sure that the seminars started and finished on time. And last but not least all the technology has worked!
The series also boasted a pub night, with participants virtually meeting for a long distance drink. This experiment worked very well, allowing a social event that was not based on work but allowed the sharing of experience and knowledge in professional but also much broader fields. I look forward to the next.
In part 2 I will review the remaining three seminars.