iGEM > Paris > Ethics > Ethical Report > Introduction


Synthetic biology is a young branch of contemporary biology, which aims to design functional modules in an organism, taking the advantages of different methods to develop the capacity of that organism to “do” and to “be” something new, something that isn't naturally in its own capacity. Synthetic biology embodies the meeting of two assembled elements : the manipulation of organisms modified by man (technologies already developed by molecular biology) and an engineering approach through the aim of standardization.

By using an engineering approach, synthetic biologists hope to discover underlying design principles in genetic networks and to develop new standards for how biologists manipulate genes. Tim Gardner and Jim Collins' biological toggle switch (Gardner, Cantor, and Collins 2000) is a good example of this engineering approach. Using simple, standardizable genetic modules, they were able to build a switch in E coli that controls its behavior. Thus, knowledge from genetics is transformed to work for engineering purposes. Through standardization, it is hoped that discoveries and progress in synthetic biology will be usable at a large scale, will be included in a common reference and could create a harmonious and protocolar ensemble.

The emergence of a new discipline, of new forms of knowledge, new sets of practices and handling is “socially” accompanied by new discourses, tales, hopes, anguishes, etc. That new “whole” will have built-in stakes, references and paradigms that affect our regard of the world. Our reflexion is about ethics in synthetic biology. Thus, we will poll, question those hopes, anguishes and promises linked to that new discipline in that ethical perspective.

The ethical reflexion has some intellectual constraints : we will have to take account of and challenge the abstraction of the moral and normative while facing the complexity of the social world it is trying to rule. Ethics in science is quite difficult to define, I decide to consider it as the challenge of the coexistence of a free scientific research, both in theory and practices, and the social responsibilities of those scientific theories and practices. In this introduction, we will have to consider two sets of stakes, two dimensions relevant to that challenge. At first, in the field of ethics : how and for what aim was the ethical reflexion on the sciences built? Then, in the field of science : why do scientists have to consider, through the concept of risk, the social world?

A. Perspectives from the field of ethics : polyphony and the moral imperative.

Deontology in science (as a professional ethical code or a code of professional responsibility), since Hippocrates, was gradually twisted, invested, questioned by a series of social actors and disciplines. It no longer belongs to doctors and, largely, to scientists, on their own and in a “corporatist” way, traditional and endogenous, to rule the moral implications of their works and productions. It is an ethics “by doctors, for doctors”.

The main rupture which leads us from medical ethics to bioethics happened after World War II, with collective reflexions about human rights and science, coming to us from the “by doctors, for doctors” perspective. During the 60's, two kinds of events happened that shaped the development of bioethics : some scandalous cases (for example the Thalidomide, the Brooklyn and Willowbrook cases (Hirsch, Ameisen, and Collectif 2007)) and the emergence of new critical and political discourses claiming individual rights, autonomy and contesting authority, and, through that criticism, medical and scientific authority.

The singularity of bioethics comes from this plurality of legitimate social actors, disciplines and discourses about “good practices in science”. Among these, medical and scientific discourses are joined with discourses from the theological and juridical fields, as well as discourses from activists, ecologists, citizens, consumers, patient, etc. That singularity comes with a enlargement of the scale of the object of the ethical thought : from medicine to life science. In the United States of America during the 70's, that movement came with a polarization of the ethical concerns : some specialized sectors of ethics were rising (bioethics, business ethics, environmental ethics, etc), showing that the point is now both about building a system of ethical references and a rational procedure of decision-making. It enlightens the pragmatical concern at work in that new ethical perspective.

Legitimacy seems quite hard to attain : the one who detains scientific knowledge is no longer the only one who “can” and “must” express the social ins and outs about a scientific discovery or progress. There is dissociation between modes of legitimacy of bioethical discourse and forms of “traditional” scientific gratitude. We can notice that new participants of the debate are “uninitiated” persons or a “mixed group”, expressing themselves in new structures (institutional or not), new moment of expression, and new recommendations. Temporality, form and dynamics of discourses are now numerous, hybrid and non rivalled. Exteriority from the scientific field is now a criterion of legitimacy, regarding the fact that internal motivations of the speakers are not involved in the moral imperative expressed.

These new expressions of “good practices in science” lead us to a new problem : it reveals a new and complex prescriptive dimension to the bioethical discourses. Actually, the pragmatical objective of that ethical reflexion is to prescribe. It makes use of an imperative, a “good practices manual” as tools, expressing its genealogy and cultural history : universalism of moral principles from the modern philosophy.

Both elements, one from the historical construction of bioethics and the other from that philosophical tradition, are intention. Plurality of discourses about good practices in science is becoming a productive polyphony, both considered as complex and as new wealth of our democratic societies. That polyphony seemed quite contradictory to the quest of unity and simplicity of moral principle, built on the idea that a moral imperative has to be one, simple and necessary to be operational and, above all, to be valid.

How are we to deal with both, quite contradictory dynamics in the bioethical perspective? How are we to build normative principles in order to guide and to control practices? Every disciplinary paradigm, every social actor, every regard seem legitimate to express in their own way but are still trying to fulfill a unique moral imperative. Bioethics has the interest to embody that tension between a polyphony of legitimate discourses and and a moral imperative quest, between the multiple and the unique, the hybrid and the pure.

B. Perspectives from the scientific field : considering the social world.

As we find out in our previous reflexions, the look of the outsiders of the scientific field on scientific practices and productions is now perceived as a richness and is progressively admitted and legitimate.

Citizens, jurists, sociologists, economists, politicians, people from consumers or patients' associations, NGO's are now entitled to claim a visibility on scientific practices and motivations. That claim came with discourses, recommendations and alerts.

My own presence in the Paris team in the IGEM competition is representative of that phenomenon : being a science studies sociologist on the team, having a “anthropological approach”, trying to enlighten ethical stakes. Scientists accept the presence of observers. What will be the feedback of that acceptance? Of that opening to the other, the outsider of the scientific community, the uninitiated?

We first have to come back to an a priori that will be only mentioned here because of its importance even if it is not at the heart of our reflexions : the historical influence of the uninitiated, the non scientists on the constitution of scientific knowledge, has always been important, even if invisible. In the pubs of London in the modern period (Stewart 1999) or in the salon of the “Blue stockings” movement of the British aristocracy (Sartori 2006), many invisible places and people are left out of the History of science but were active contributors in the production of knowledge. That contribution in invisibility is a way for us to perceive the broadness, the irregularity and the divergence of the multiple front line of science, creating a multiplicity of places, people, kind of expertise and practices to look at (Pestre 2006).

According to Marie-Angèle Hermitte (Hermitte 2007), in the 1970‘s, a "society of science and technology" (referring to any society where science and technology are the primary production resource) developed between the economy of knowledge under construction (weighing up knowledge, technology and sustainability as a new motor of the contemporary capitalism) and the risk society, considering that “we can't have one without the other”. That culture of science also has a new component, separating it from the idea of priceless progress, making its rise “spectacular” for the analyst : that society rests on “consent”. It is now admitted, encouraged and normalized to expose difficulties and risks linked to technological society, to admit that technological progress is not exempt from negative effects. That element will be important in our approach, because it culturally built up a new objective of the ethical perspective, adding to the objective of prevention (regarding established risks) an objective of precaution (adding the “probable” risks to its concerns). The new aspect of “consent” in our technological society regarding crisis, risks and the global consensus about the necessity to exit lead to the creation of a new people, composed of manufacturers, scientists, politicians, and citizens keeping their differences of opinion in order to create “social pact” to answer the new social and environmental imperatives. The risks associated with emerging technologies could reconfigure the social world, putting the promises, responsibilities and expertise of science and scientists at its centre. The ethical questions in sciences and the new relations that it “imposes” between social actors can have some large effect and reconfigurations on the social world and democracy.

We have to take into consideration those uninitiated in the social debates, controversies and polemics nowadays about the technical and scientific decisions facing risks (nuclear waste, GMOs, infected blood). Controversies are special moments and situations where both uncertainty and divergences between actors are perceptible. These situations call scientists' monopoly into questions about what is the best way to resolve the “local” problem, leading to a more “global and conceptual challenge” by reopening the question of the “neutrality of science”. The legitimacy of the scientific decision about risks, and so the technical choice of politics usually based on these scientific decisions, are now disputed. Scientific and social controversies are a way to put into light the democratic aspects of the scientific decision-making process, focused on the question of the good way to “live together” (including the environmental question), that new social pact, where ethical perspective is at the center. We can also notice, referring to the work of Callon, Lascoumes and Barthe's (Callon, Lascoumes, and Barthe 2001), that controversies are also regarded as a new way to practice a “dialogical democracy” in the decision making process, in some new “open spaces where groups can mobilize themselves to debate technical choices in which the public is involved”. As already proposed, the question of governementality, the scientific decision making process and democratic experimentation have to be considered in our reflexion.

As evidenced by our emphasis on the words “look” and“regard”, ethics is mainly about observation, looking before assessing. Importantly, in order to judge a situation, one needs to have access to it. That “look” on scientific production can be the look of the scientific community, the look of the outsider, the look of the judge, etc. Building ethical tools is also about building that observation, that special way to look at scientific production. I intend to create a dialogue between the “look”, the “regard” and the “speech” as the next step of this ethical perspective. That way, speech has to be thought almost as “action”, referring to the performative utterance, allowing us to consider it also in a critical perspective, by observing what kind of power, tensions and strategies are involved in a scientific debate that covers a multiplicity of social stakes.

Open book.gif

← Previous - Next →