Latest News

Interview with Terry Taylor

Terry Taylor is a participant in the recent Synthetic Biology dialogue. Sciencewise interviewed Terry about his experience of taking part in the dialogue. You can find full information about the synthetic biology dialogue here

Tell us about your experience...

I went to the synthetic biology dialogue in Llandudno. The first workshop was an introduction. I didn’t know much about synthetic biology so it raised my awareness and started me thinking about synthetic biology. The second workshop was a lot more detailed – we got to ask scientists more questions about safeguards and were exposed to more science. I really got to know the scientists in this workshop. But there wasn’t enough science for me and that was a message that came out broadly amongst participants. So, organisers took this message on board and in the third workshop they presented the science in much more detail.

The discussion involved splitting us into groups with very different people; some people were more vocal than others, some less. We were briefed really well about what it was we were talking about. In general, everyone got a fair chance to input into the discussions and it was really well run.

What were your views on synthetic biology and science before the dialogue?

I’ve always been quite interested in science and regularly read science articles on the internet or watch documentaries on TV, so I had some views based on the limited amount of information I’d already had access to. For instance, I’ve never been against GM crops. I’m always amazed that we can imagine something and then actually create it using science. I think it’s a good thing for humans to push the boundaries of scientific knowledge even if there are risks. Scientific initiatives like space travel always used to seem beyond us, a fantasy that we’d dreamed up. In many respects, engineering at the nanoscale seems equally as far fetched as a trip to Mars and yet we’re doing it right now. So, I’m never surprised by the potential of science. Even before I’d been to the workshops, I knew a little about the potentials offered by stem cell research and also that cures for diseases were on the cards with this technology.

What was it like to discuss this subject with scientists?

It’s always intimidating to meet scientists because you worry that you’re going to ask a daft question. But once we were all in the room together and realised that we were all in the same boat then it seemed a lot easier to put your view forward. As soon as we started discussing our views I realised I wasn’t out of my depth at all and that I could easily apply my own knowledge to the discussion topics.

Synthetic biology is cutting edge science but the basics of synthetic biology are pretty straightforward. Obviously we couldn’t go in a lab and do what scientists do, but we can understand the basic notion that you take the shell of a cell and remove the DNA and replace it with other DNA to see if it will reproduce. The mechanics of it are quite simple, or at least the scientists made it easy to understand. I wouldn’t want the science dumbed-down in any way and I don’t think the general public do. I think the public appreciate being treated as intelligent people and are perfectly capable of dealing with this kind of scientific concept.

In the discussion, I asked some quite personal questions about whether or not the scientists felt a personal responsibility for the results of their discoveries. For example, did Oppenheimer realise his responsibilities when he started playing about with splitting atoms? I think by and large we were very positive towards what the scientists were doing. Early on in the process we were shown a video showing all the scientists at home and in their working environment. At first it seemed like it was intended to make us a little more partisan to their cause by attempting to present them in a friendly and homely way. Although I initially questioned the motives behind this video I actually think it was a good thing to be shown because it helped us as a group dispel any mis-conceptions and fears we might have had of Dr. Frankenstein types carrying out weird experiments. As the process went on we became less focused on issues of controlling the science and the scientists and more on what synthetic biology might offer. There were a few arguments made against the science, which were presented at the dialogue by someone speaking from an ecological/environmental viewpoint, but they seemed less convincing than those put forward by the scientists involved in the process.

What message do you hope the scientists and policy makers will take away from this?

The one thing that came out more than anything was the need for regulation. I think people were worried about the idea of self-regulation among scientists and that shortcuts might be taken. I think we all wanted the scientists to remain totally conscious of the amount of responsibility on their shoulders if they come up with what potentially could be a new life form.

There was some controversy about whether this research should be funded by only the public purse or from the private sector. I think I was the only person in my group who thought that all the money should come from the public purse because it should be the public that take the risks and reap the rewards of science. I worry about the private sector funding only things that will generate most profit or which are patentable. Lots of people disagreed with this, but I argued that we all pay for private sector discoveries in the end in the profits they make. So, wouldn’t it be better if the science was transparent and accountable to the public? The only person in the group who agreed with me in principle was the scientist, although he acknowledged the practical challenges of this view point because private funding is often much easier to obtain.

Why do you think your opinions about synthetic biology are important?

Scientists and Research Councils will always have partial views about science because that’s the environment they live in. Those who are not part of the science world might think about these things in different ways, and not always along the lines that those in the science world would have predicted. Apart from anything else, a lot of public money goes into science so it should be transparent to the public. We don’t want another public backlash like when GM foods started to be grown; one minute no one has heard of them and the next there’s panic all over the internet and it’s already in your food. That’s why these dialogue processes are really important and why I’m pleased to have been involved.

For science to be good for all of us, both scientists and the public, money has to be invested in pre-publicising new discoveries at every step of the way. I hope the policy makers continue to involve the public because I think it’s a great investment of money. It oils the wheels of science and stops them from becoming stuck – which I think has happened with GM foods.