#futureofnature The Open Door

It seems like a simple and neat idea doesn’t it: bringing two communities together that are working to solve similar problems in different ways, to see if they can solve the problems together. Two minds are better than one, great minds think alike and all that.

Turns out, when it came to Synthetic Biology (SB) and Conservation Biology (CB), this did not seem to be the case from the off-set.

Kent Redwood organised a meeting where SB experts, CB experts, sociologists, environmentalists, and students like myself, could come together for the first time to learn from each other, to see if they could solve their shared goals together.

I went to the #futureofnature conference with a completely blank slate: I have very little (barely worth mentioning) knowledge of synthetic biology, and very little (again don’t know most of it) knowledge on conservation biology. I went in with no expertise, wet behind the ears, and ready to learn and absorb everyone else’s.

One metaphor that was used to describe the framing of this meeting was “The First Date”. SBs and CBs were meeting on a date, an initial interview to get to know each other, and whether or not they could go together, and work together as a team. Maybe start a Second Date? It’s an interesting metaphor to use, given its implications.

The first day was all about introductions: what is SB? What is CB? What are we trying to do? It was a show-and-tell. Bring your best cards to the table and show just how much you are capable of. It was interesting; the SBs we’re excited, they were proud, they were ready to tell the room what they could do. They were a proactive lot. They showed that they were already thinking about tackling some of the “world problems” that the CBs have.

The CBs however, were much more reserved. They were unsure of what the future was for the natural world, they were afraid of losing species, of changing species, of meddling with nature. They were careful, cautious.

Not only that, but their response to the SB side was careful and cautious too. And in a way, I could understand their reserves. As one CB said, many CBs haven’t studied biology, let alone followed the latest research in genetics for some 40/50 years. And now they are confronted with the idea of Synthetic Biology, which has the potential to create new life!

I am beginning to think that maybe, just maybe, the SBs pitched their science at the wrong level. There was so much for them to say, but they didn’t have time to say it all. So they said what they could in the time they had, but in order to say all the best things, they had to say them quickly. And as with a lot of scientists talking about their work quickly, there is a tendency to slip into jargon. This may be where they lost their audience, and instead of instilling hope, possibilities and a great future, they brought fear, risk aversion and confusion.

So how to overcome this? When I’m learning about something new, something I don’t understand very well, I like to talk to people about it. I like to bounce ideas off people, get their reactions, see as many different points of view as I can, and then make up my mind. Two heads are better than one, at least that’s true for me.

This is what happened; the discussions continued into Day 2, when the aim was to dig a little deeper. The surface had been scratched the day before, so now it was time to crack it open entirely.

The main talks of the day were: the practice of conservation and how it might be affected by SB, the implications of SB for the wider social and economic change relevant to the future, what aspects of SB should CBs worry about and/or be excited about, and what aspects of CB should SBs worry about and/or be excited about?

I’ve already outlined some of the key concepts that were discussed, but the most interesting one for me was about risk perception. Each of these communities have a different set of ethics, values and rhetorics, is this why there may still be difference in ideas and views of problems and risks associated with SB? As not all stakeholders have the same values, is that making this conversation (science) scary to some?

The overarching feeling was that the CB community felt that the SB community of scientists were teenagers, “monkeying around” with biology that they didn’t fully understand. They weren’t able to predict the consequences of deliberate release, or of doing SB in your garage. But even those who decided to take science out of the confinements of university or commercial research are aware of the risks, they have their own regulations which run parallel to those of the wider communities.

But just because they can’t predict what will happen, doesn’t mean that SBs are not aware of the risks. They factor them into their work. Without doing so, they would not be able to get the funding they need to continue their research. Added onto this, if they did start behaving like mavericks and released new systems into the wider world, the whole field of SB would get a bad reputation, and it would be difficult to recover from that.

Values were further addressed on Day 3, when the social scientists took to the stage to address the public perception and understanding of SB and CB.

CB has been around for a while now, and it has started framing it’s subject in a rather gloomy way: Our animals are becoming extinct, our plants are dying, our planet isn’t the same as it used to be. They have framed their subject in a negative way. The SBs on the other hand were all: YAY look at this, isn’t this so friggin’ cool, look at what we can do! This was a much more positive frame. A general conclusion from that section was that CBs are looking for problems and how to avoid them, whilst SB researchers are looking for solutions and how they can help.

After speaking to some of the conference goers after this talk, I was surprised to find that a few of them were beginning to question themselves and their disciplines; why am I studying this? What is my role in this field? Questioning their own motives and values on a subject will potentially help each CB and SB researcher to fully understand what it is that their subject is about.

Hopefully, this will allow them to reach the conclusion that they are trying to solve the same problems!

As it was SB that was the novel science that not many people understand, the focus was on how SB will/could/can help/change/affect the problems that both groups of experts are attempting to solve. This was perceived by one member of the group as peer pressure: you MUST take on our ideas/science or your world will fall apart! This was not, I believe, the point of the meeting. The point was to learn from each other. CBs could gain a glimpse into the world of SB, and see what use it could be to their aims, and at the same time SBs were learning from the CBs, and trying to see where they could collaborate.

But even so, after all the discussion, there will always be some that are not willing to embrace and learn new things. They will always want to go back, and revert to a world as it was. The thing is, a time machine has not been invented, we cannot go back to how the world was. As time goes on, the world goes on. So, it is worth considering that if your method of trying to solve certain problems isn’t working, what’s wrong with trying something new?

““You’re pushing against a huge open door, and I invite you to walk through” Was a remark from Prof Paul Freemont from Imperial College’s CSynBio. I would like to think that the CBs will have a look at what SB can offer. Although it is a new field of research, science is always becoming more interdisciplinary. By having different ways of interpreting data and coming to conclusions, more can be gained from it. Let’s hope that the CB community does walk through this door, because it is at a point where two groups with different perspectives meet, that ideas could really begin to flow.

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