The Government and industry should take steps to ensure that research and development of new biotechnologies is carried out in accordance with social and ethical responsibilities, says a new report from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.
Biotechnology innovation requires great investment, and choices about how they are supported and governed have major consequences for national and global challenges in healthcare, food, energy, the environment and the economy. But when decisions are made about which biotechnologies to prioritise, not enough consideration is given to the needs and interests of wider society, or of other technological or social alternatives that could best support the ‘public good’, says the Council.
“Biotechnologies have the potential to bring about significant transformations in the world today. They are likely to greatly affect many aspects of everyday life such as the development of new medicines and treatments, and the production of food, energy and fuel” said Professor Mick Moran, Chair of the Nuffield inquiry. “There is therefore a strong public interest in biotechnologies, and the way they are governed should take proper account of this”.
“Having looked at a number of areas in which biotechnology research is advancing, such as synthetic biology, pharmaceutical development and biomanufacturing, we believe more could be done to maximise the social value of innovation in biotechnology. We set out a proposal for a ‘public ethics’ approach to governance of emerging biotechnologies that is based on core values of equity, solidarity and sustainability” said Professor Moran.
The report, Emerging Biotechnologies: technology, choice and the public good, makes recommendations as to how this approach could be applied across several key areas that shape and select pathways of biotechnology development, including policy, public engagement, research and business.
The Council says that policy decisions about biotechnology research and innovation are often made on the basis of unexamined assumptions and poorly supported claims about future economic impacts, which marginalise other important values.
It recommends that the Government should define and publish a single, clear research policy against which the research policies of government departments and other funders can be tested. Furthermore, it recommends that the Government should consider appointing a non-departmental senior minister to bring together research policy across all government departments and funding bodies.
“The process of selection should be transparent and accountable – without clear principles, there is a danger that research policy is determined through closed engagement between scientific, political and industry elites, with no assurance that important social values will be considered” said historian Professor David Edgerton, a member of the Working Party.
The Council see public engagement as an important way of ensuring that social values help to shape, select and govern emerging biotechnologies, and as a tool for putting ‘public ethics’ into practice. It notes that there is no universal or perfect approach to public engagement but sets out a number of dilemmas to be negotiated carefully, where failing to attend to these can lead to worse outcomes rather than better ones.
Public engagement and expert advice cannot replace the need for properly accountable decision making and for this reason the Council recommends that the conclusions of public engagement exercises, and expert deliberations, should be reported as conditional advice rather than simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ findings.
Researchers operate in an environment of high public expectations of the social and economic impact of emerging biotechnologies and even modest advances may sometimes be significantly ‘hyped up’. The Council recommends that systems for publicly funded research should be sensitive to the dangers of encouraging researchers to assess the wider impacts of their research, and that researchers should be prepared to actively engage to represent their research responsibly in other settings.
“When researchers communicate the results of their work and hopes about where it may lead, they create expectations that inform the decisions of policy makers and investors” said Professor Moran. “It’s important that researchers who take part in public discussion of research take responsibility for the accuracy and completeness of the information they present”.
The Council says that commercial conditions that shape early stage biotechnology research, for example the patent system, create incentives and rewards that do not promote or value the social benefits of research enough.
The Council calls for consideration to be given to state interventions in the market for new biotechnologies to make sure that the benefits of innovation are secured through rewards that reflect the social value of innovations.