#futureofnature Day 2 summary

My thoughts, memories, and uptakes of the days’ events.

After hearing definitions of Synthetic Biology and Conservation Biology yesterday, the second day of the conference explored how these two communities could help each other and work together to solve some of the “world problems.” There was a lot of information to take in today, so I am only able to provide a summary of events and thoughts raised.

For a full programme of speakers, have a look here.

The morning sessions looked at the practice of conservation and how it might be affected by SynBio (Session 3), and the implications of SynBio for the wider social and economic change relevant to the future (Session 4).

Both these sessions explored some new ideas. Some of the key ideas/questions that came out of the sessions were:

- How do we regulate synthetic biology? Do we allow each country to have their own regulations? Is it going to be hard regulation, soft, or down to the individual? Regulation not about stopping doing science, it’s about making sure that it is safe. Not same as prohibition. When do we bring this in? Product on market – need as gets on market.

- How are we defining the success of conservation attempts? Definitions for its failure exist: extinction.

- Provided more of an idea of what specific areas of conservation are doing: species,  land use, protected areas.

- Synthetic biologists are more excited. Conservation biologists are more worried. “All conservationists know what to do is wring hands and scream from rooftops about how the animals are disappearing.” Not entirely what I have been seeing: conservationists have shown that they would like to do research, they just need to get out there and do it, and find some money!

- How can we get these two groups working together more? Get conservation biologists on iGEM projects.

- There are people missing from this conversation: funders, farmers, fisherman, government.

- Ethics, values and rhetorics of these different communities, and expert groups are entirely different. This is why there may still be difference in ideas and views of problems. By not all stakeholders having the same values, is that what makes this conversation (science) scary?

- Conservation biologists are looking for problems and how to avoid. SynBio researchers are looking for solutions and how they can help.

- There are more social/economic/political aspects of this argument that need to be considered. If create synthetic plants which produce high yield with low land use that don’t require as much work to maintain: people may lose jobs.

- Conservationists are still fearful of the science. Maybe because they only know genetics that they learned x number of years ago, haven’t kept up with science. So all of this is new, and feels like it has run away from them?

In the afternoon the following questions were asked: What aspects of synthetic biology should conservationists worry about and/or be excited about? What aspects of conservation should synthetic biologists worry about and/or be excited about?

Summary of key ideas:

- More people need to be involved: indigenous people, farmers, politicians, economists, funders etc

- Privatisation of conservation?

- If SynBio starts working on species conservation, how will our views and values of nature change?

- Should we be going for SynBio if haven’t tried all other methods yet?

- Geographical movements need to be considered: changing land use in one area of world could have secondary effects on other parts of planet.

- Unintended consequences of regulations! Why not place faith in the scientists that are part of the process of discovery who know what they are doing in the research. Regulatory process not just.

- Regulation: not about controlling/stopping/halting work.

- If going to do work outside UK within the field, SynBio researchers are engaging with local populations and decision makers.

- Conservationists should get more involved in SynBio so that they can learn! Come to meetings, lectures, get involved so you can learn about SynBio.

- Synthetic biologists have opened their doors to the conservationists to join in, go to labs, be part of lectures, learn about their science and their work. Conservationists are not walking through this door… why?

- Mauri indigenous people have entirely different perspective. Questions of what is nature/life are simple. Do not see need in resurrection of extinct creatures as are comfortable with death.

My thoughts (from observations and conversations):

- These two groups of people need to incorporate more groups, more stakeholders that will be involved in the future.

- The two groups weren’t being understood by the other: some felt as if their opinions weren’t regarded as professional or worthy.

- “Synthetic biologists are not teenagers” – related to “monkeying around” from previous day?

- Today it felt as though some surfaces were starting to be scratched, but conversations were stifled by time limitations.

- What happens next? Has anyone thought about how this conversation will go further?

- Concern about how much hype has been made about synthetic biology.

- SynBio researchers asking the question: if we do not know the implications of our work, do we then have the luxury to take action?

- No one asked conservationists the question: where exactly do you think SynBio can help? No-one asked synthetic biologists the question: where exactly do you think you can help?

- After yesterday’s brief introduction to the subject, it still feels a little like the different communities are not working together.

- SynBio researchers have been thinking about, and are aware of some of the wider consequences of their work, whereas the conservationists are new to synthetic biology, therefore this is slightly scary to them.

- Conservationists looking for how SynBio can help in grand-scheme ideas: how can SynBio help in land-use?; species protection?; protected areas etc. SynBio researchers have specific projects which show very specialised applications rather than wider reaching projects.

- Eventually the conversation will turn to what the underlying causes are to the “world problems.” This may well end up being the culture and sustainability of our current agricultural methods.

- WHAT NEXT?? No suggestions been made yet. Mine would be to set up a workshop where you provide a futuristic scenario that would require SynBio researchers, conservation biologists and social scientists to work together to solve the problem. This would show how well these groups work together now, and how (if needed) they could work together better in the future when these problems become reality.

- Interesting analogy: human body is a very complex system that we do not fully understand, yet we are willing to take/use medication that we do not fully understand how they work in order to prevent us getting ill (vaccination) or prevent us from getting worse (anti-biotics, cancer treatments). None of these are entirely risk free. So, if we are willing to take this risk on our own bodies, why not with Earth and ecosystems, if SynBio researchers have been able to show that the solutions they have for problems work in lab?

- Conservationists have ideas of how they want to proceed, but are lacking funds. They might have to change the way they approach research: figure out what you want to do, and find scientists that are willing to help with it!

- In the afternoon, it didn’t feel like anyone actually answered the questions that were heading up the session. SynBio researchers showed what they were capable of, and excited about, in SynBio. They didn’t have many (if any) worries. The only one that was mentioned was invasive species getting out of control, but that risk assessments were under way. Conservationists stated what they were worried about with the state of biodiversity and conservation at present, and in the future. They were a little more clear about how SynBio could be helpful, but they did focus more on the cons than the pros.

- Felt like to conservationists didn’t trust the SynBio people to know what they were doing, even though they are experts in their field.

This is all I can remember after lots of food, drinks and conversations. As I remember more, I will update this page. Keep your eyes on it :)

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