Emerging biotechnologies: technology, choice and the public good

Yesterday, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics published its latest report: Emerging Biotechnologies: technology, choice and the public good.  The report was launched by Professor Mick Moran, who chaired the working party that produced the report, at a well-attended reception at the Nuffield Foundation.  Here’s what he said:

“Our subject is not emerging biotechnologies as such, but how we think about emerging biotechnologies.”

The Council asked us to examine cross-cutting issues arising from emerging biotechnologies. But given the sheer variety of biotechnologies, almost the only cross-cutting issue we found that was common to all emerging biotechnologies was emerging itself.  Whatever the emerging biotechnology, the conditions that shape its emergence are there as a result of various decisions, dispositions, behaviours and omissions.  And here we found the focus for our ethical inquiry, namely the influence of moral agents on the conditions that shape emergence in biotechnologies.

The kinds of conditions we are talking about are things like funding of research, regulatory requirements, commercial investment, patenting rules and social acceptance.  But what is most important is how these conditions interact with each other and with emerging technologies to define innovation pathways in ways that make some more favourable than others, and – at the extreme – can ‘lock in’ or ‘crowd out’ certain technologies, cause markets to fail, and engender significant social transformations.

A key concept in the report is how decisions are ‘framed’.  This means both the context in which something is represented in thought and discourse, and how the possibilities that are available are practically constrained.  What is clear is that how we think and speak about emerging biotechnologies, the sources of value on which we draw, constrains the possible outcomes of decisions.  That is inevitable. The question is how we get there is an ethically appropriate way.

“Our understanding of where, why and how novelties emerge is limited in that most ideas are not developed and most inventions not exploited, the current landscape of technologies is not the only one possible.”

There is always a deficit of useful evidence when we are talking about emerging biotechnologies, and the evidence we do have can be partial and misleading: looking at the past from the perspective of the present is very different from looking at the present from the perspective of the past.

Policy and governance of emerging biotechnologies have to take account of this, fostering diversity in research rather than driving through pre-determined trajectories. The issue is therefore not one of ‘pro-‘ and ‘anti-‘ biotechnology: that is a damaging polarisation.  Instead it is one of balancing different commitments and applying socially – rather than merely technically, or politically, or economically – determined conditions to shape and filter the technologies, and our investment in them.

How those questions are addressed is important because the answers potentially have an impact on everyone.  As such they require an ethical approach that goes beyond ensuring the fair protection of individual interests and poses questions about a positive understanding of the public good.

“We regard finding the terms of an unbiased and open engagement between relevant normative positions as being the proper subject of an ‘ethics’ of emerging biotechnology governance”

At the heart of this report is what we characterise as a ‘public ethics’ approach that is grounded in discourse – in the possibility of communicating and reasoning together collectively: as a social group, a nation state, a global community.  This is about choices about biotechnologies in which there is a substantial public interest being framed according to public values rather than private values and sectional interests.  We recognise that these public values always have to be discovered in a concrete historical context, that they are not pre-ordained or eternal – hence the need for discourse.  What does this it mean in practice?

“Public ethics is intended to foster a more socially responsible approach to biotechnology governance that introduces social value as a third element in the shaping and selection of biotechnology alongside elite opinion and market forces.”

The innovation systems that govern emerging biotechnologies have themselves been governed by a varying mixture of direction by government (informed by senior figures from industry and academia) and market forces.

The need to find new sources of economic growth has understandably turned on biotechnology and the life sciences as areas of significant potential. Impact, especially economic impact, has become a standard index for the value of knowledge.  But this eagerness for economic instrumentality of technology obscures other values.

The question is how these other values can be brought into the shaping and selection of emerging biotechnologies. We propose a number of ways, from mechanisms to advance responsible research, the need for better coordinated government policy, to fostering a more engaged public, and to radical market interventions based on the rewards for health impact.

So now the report is published.  What now?

We will be holding a number of meetings and seminars with key individuals and organisations early next year.  We want these to bring together people across the disciplinary, professional and public roles, in a model of the kind of ‘discourse ethics’ we argue for in the report.

The three themes we intend to develop are:

  • Biotechnologies and the public sphere.
  • Biotechnology research and the public good.
  • Bringing public values into biotechnology innovation.

For more information on this continuing work, keep an eye on the Council’s website.

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