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Transparency, trust and acceptance

Posted 14/07/2010 by RoseS

Avoiding the mistakes of the past can have an extremely positive impact on future innovation and development. As C&I has highlighted in recent issues, both synthetic biology and nanotechnology are at something of a crossroads when past experience can have real meaning.

As new, or relatively new in the case of nanotechnology, areas of research, there is public concern about their possible impacts on the environment and society as a whole.

At this week’s conference Nanotechnology – UK Challenges to Commercialisation, organised by the UK’s Chemical Industries Association and Department f Business, Innovation & Skills, speakers once again highlighted the need for transparency and trust if the benefits of nanotechnology are to be realised. Obviously transparency between industry and the public will facilitate acceptance of nano-based products already in use as well as those currently under development, but there was also recognition that the public wants to see relevant controls through appropriate regulation.

As regards synthetic biology, the same message needs to be repeated. There is the exactly the same need for transparency and trust based on knowledge with sensible and proportionate regulation not just on a national but also on an international framework. We have been down this road before with genetic modified organisms as I pointed out in Issue 12.

However, someone who might be regarded as one of the possible ‘fathers’ of synthetic biology, Craig Venter, and Harvard genetics scientist George Church, recently highlighted one of the possibly overlooked potential hazards for the approach to this new and growing sector of research - bioterrorism. They were addressing a hearing on synthetic biology held by the US Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.

Between them they highlighted the importance of knowledge and understanding, but particularly a strong and sensible approach to regulation once again. ‘As the costs drop and knowledge spreads, individuals or small groups can do with biology what they currently do with explosives, illegal drugs and computer viruses,’ Church told the commission. ‘If you have a speed limit but no-one enforcing it, you’ll have people speeding. You need to proactively set up a radar system and surveil it.’

As the pair pointed out, at least in the US, the current supervision of synthetic biology is largely based on controls and reporting requirements associated with the receipt of government funding. ‘The rules don’t go far enough,’ said Church.

One hopes that, in terms of synthetic biology and bioterrorism, this is one aspect of forecasting that Venter has made that will not come to pass.

Neil Eisberg - Editor

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  • Anonymous said:
    14/07/2012 03:35

    SallyYes there is deep chemistry invloved in getting the diploma of a Chemical Engineer and in the career itself. Where I am taking Chemical Engineering, it is required to take all the way up to Polymer Chemistry and sometimes beyond that, which is high level stuff. (Not to mention all the classes to take before Polymer Chem)If you want to go into petroleum, then the materials side, instead of the bio-chem side, of Chemical Engineering is what you would want to take. This requires Polymer Chemistry, mentioned above, and several materials engineering classes on top of the regular requirements of a Chem-E. The knowledge of the elements and how they react with each other is vitally important to making anything.However, this question should really be asked to your adviser. It's different based on school and program.

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