Governance of Emerging BioDesign Technologies

On Jan 19th, I attended a semi-closed event entitled Workshop on the Governance of Emerging BioDesign Technologies. The event was organized by a team of researchers based at, or affiliated with, Policy Alternative Research Institute of the University of Tokyo, including our project member Go Yoshizawa. Its main aim was to cross-examine a range of emerging biotechnologies – such as synthetic biology, gene drive, and gene editing – and current practices of their governance, and to discuss if we could go beyond technology-specific approaches that have been predominant in the past.


It was a fantastic opportunity for those who are thinking about these issues in Japan, like myself, because its speakers included Professors Kenneth Oye at MIT, Megan Palmer at Stanford, and Sam Evans at Tufts and Harvard (he is also my old colleague at InSIS, Oxford), who all have been part of a major research program in the U.S. to bridge disciplines of biology and engineering called Synberc and also involved in educational activities in the field of synthetic biology, such as the iGEM competition. Understandably, the workshop adopted the Chatham House rule, which was crucial not only for speakers but for all participants to fully engage its discussion, so I cannot tell who said what but here describe some of the issues that I personally felt worthy of further exploration.

During the workshop, it was repeatedly suggested that the speed of technological development is getting faster at an exponential rate because several different streams of biosciences are now converging and forming very strong current. In this context, responsive governance approaches are deemed to fail, partly because they fall behind and partly because they often start discussion after adverse consequences are already observed. This, however, by no means mean proactive approaches are always better; they tend to be precautionary and often attempt to make time for careful deliberation by slowing down the speed of technological development.

Therefore, for both those who know well the cutting edge of technological development and want to maintain its momentum and those who want to ensure that a governance system adequate for it is in place, close collaboration can lead to a win-win arrangement. As pointed out in the workshop, to make such collaboration work effectively requires a considerable amount of effort. But such effort can be worth making. A strong case for it may be where scientists came up with ‘a technical fix’ for a societal concern to which social scientists had drawn their attention. Of course, my intention is not to suggest that that was ‘a happy ending’ for those collaborated. The technical fix cannot be perfect from every single perspective and it is possibly that the original issue was translated into another problem (c.f. Latour 1992). Therefore, their collaboration has to continue. Yet, social scientists’ involvement did open up a new stream of technological development that scientists and engineers might not have pursued otherwise, and at least on this point we can call it win-win.

The collaborative work of scientists/engineers and social scientists happening in this way has so far been rather organic and for that reason, tends to be local. So, the question about desirability of international harmonization was also raised several times during the workshop. Attempts to harmonize the governance of emerging technologies across countries are often made, and in some cases they result in international agreements. However, such arrangements might lack commitment from key actors, making their actual impacts questionable, despite their symbolic significance.

Furthermore, the agreements still need be interpreted and implemented locally, causing notable divergence in governance practices at local levels. If the technology of concern were locally containable, then having local governance practice for it might be plausible. But if not and given the increased mobility of individuals, things, and ideas in our society, that would not be sufficient (for example, discussions about GMOs and medical tourism). Divergence of local governance practices can also cause a problem where technological development is closely tied to expectation of financial rewards. In such a case, there is a strong incentive to make less stringent arrangements for it than other places – international competition then starts to look like a race toward minimal intervention in research and development. This can lead to a slippery slope.

An issue that was touched upon but not necessarily explored extensively was who should take the leading role in thinking about all these issues and creating the community that is attuned to the challenge of governance – or ‘a culture of responsibility’, which was the phrase used in the workshop. Both in Japan and the U.S., some individuals have been serving as a network-builder, connecting differently-minded people and letting them work together. Their presence seems to be crucial for tackling the issues of governance. The problem is, however, that such invaluable contribution has not been recognized to the extent to institutionalize a specific post for it. In other words, we never know when we might lose them. I am not arguing for creating of such a post per se, because there is no guarantee that we can come up with a complete list of characteristics required for the job. Yet, it is desirable that we find a way to make the situation sustainable for a long term. And the discussion with the US speakers made it clear that this is a shared challenge in the two countries, and possibly with many others.

It was really a thought-provoking event, and there are a lot of things that I myself have not been able to ‘digest’ properly yet. The discussion also drew my attention to some interesting papers (e.g. Balmer et al. 2015; Evans & Palmer 2017). I am very keen to know what other participants made out of the workshop, and to continue further discussion with them (and others) in the future.


ー日本語(Japanese ver.)ー

The Governance of Emerging BioDesign Technologiesワークショップ

去る1月19日に「The Governance of Emerging BioDesign Technologies」というセミクローズドのワークショップに参加してきた。このワークショップは東京大学の政策ビジョン研究センターの研究者たちが中心となって企画されたもので、合成生物学やGene Drive、ゲノム編集などの最先端のバイオテクノロジーとそれらのガバナンスの現状や展望について俯瞰的に検討することを目的としたもので、これまで主流であった個別対応的な科学技術ガバナンスの在り方とは異なるアプローチを模索するといった趣旨であった。

ゲストとして、MITのKenneth Oye教授やStanford大学のMegan Palmer博士、そしてOxford大学のInSISで一緒に学び現在はTufts大学とHarvard大学に在籍するSam Evans博士という、米国の合成生物学の大型プロジェクトであったSymbercや学生を対象とする合成生物学のiGEMコンペティションなどにも関わってきたメンバーが参加しており、日本でこのようなトピックに興味を持つ研究者にとってとてもいい機会であった。ワークショップの具体的な内容などについては主催した研究者らによって今後まとめられる予定であるということなので、参加して私が個人的に気になった点をいくつかここに記しておくことにする。


科学技術の最先端に位置し更なる発展を目指す人々にとっても、そのような新たな科学技術のガバナンスを整備することを目指す人々にとっても、互いに協力し、その知見を共有しながら物事を進めていくというアプローチはやはりメリットがあるはずである。ワークショップ中ではそのような協力関係を構築するのに多大な労力が必要とされるといった指摘もあったが、おそらくそのような労力は払うに値するものとなり得る。例えば、社会科学者が指摘する社会的な懸念に対して、科学者あるいは技術開発者が技術による解決方法を提案するといったケースは一つの参考になる。(この点においてhES細胞と山中伸弥教授のリプログラミング技術はそのような例の一つとして捉えることができる。)ただし、技術による解決によって協力関係を終えることができるといったことを意図しているのではなく、新たな技術の開発によって元の問題が新たな問題に置き換えられただけという可能性が高く(Latour 1992)、協力関係はそのまま継続されるべきであろう。その場合でも、協力関係の下でガバナンスの実現に向けた議論が行われたというだけではなく、新たな技術開発の流れも生み出されたという点においてウィン・ウィンの関係にあったと言うことができるはずだ。




今回のワークショップは非常に興味深いものであり、ここでまとめることが出来なかった事柄も含めて、今後更なる議論を行うことができればと考えている。また、議論の中ではすでに公表されている示唆に富む論文も知ることができたので、今後の活動に反映していきたいと思う。(例としてBalmar et al. 2015, Evans & Palmer 2017など。)


Latour, Bruno (1992) Where are the missing masses, sociology of a few mundane artefacts, in W. Bieker & J. Low (eds.) Shaping Technology – Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Balmer, Andrew S. et al. (2015) Taking Roles in Interdisciplinary Collaborations: Reflections on Working in Post-ELSI Spaces in the UK Synthetic Biology Community, Science & Technology Studies, 28(3), 3-25.

Evans, Sam Weiss & Megan J. Palmer (2017) Anomaly handling and the politics of gene drives, Journal of Responsibly Innovation, 5(1), 223-242.



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