Team:TUDelft/Ethics introduction



Ethics in the TU Delft iGEM project

Synthetic biology can generally comprise several goals. Some would say the goal is to make biology an engineering science, designing with biology. Other may state that building with biology can be used to further understand life. At the least, one may state that both the bottom-up, constructing part and the top-down, deconstructing aspects of synthetic biology rely on the principle of using more or less biological systems in a more or less natural way. This new approach of biology brings about new applications, but also new risks and new ethical considerations. The question is to what extent the participants in the iGEM competition realize this.

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What do we wish to investigate?

We are interested in what these new ethical considerations as proposed by ethicists in the field of synthetic biology actually means for the participants in iGEM. On an individual level, which ethical questions play a role for the TU Delft iGEM team? How do the team members work with or around these issues? These are exactly the topics that are investigated in this study.

What do we hope to find out?

In the past, ethics in science has mainly been discussed by experts in morality, rather than by scientists. We think it is interesting to also find out to what extent students and supervisors in iGEM, generally barely experienced in ethics, think of certain proposed ethical issues in synthetic biology. Which ethical constraints or motivators do they see? Perhaps there is a difference in approach between supervisors and students, or between the individual students.

Why is this important?

These ethical considerations in iGEM are important for several different reasons. Here, one approach is given. In the future, the world will run out of fossil fuels. The general idea is that we will go from fossil fuel based economy to a bio-based economy or bio-based society. For many different applications, the planet currently relies on crude oil. The idea is that many biological alternatives are available or will become available in the future, that need to be investigated scientifically. But what should scientists focus on? With limited money available, only the most useful or profitable products will be further investigated. But who decides where the needs are? Politicians? Other organizations? Companies? At least not public scientists by themselves. The money for research indirectly comes from the public at large. Grants are only supplied if the projected societal gain is large enough. One can imagine that in all these bureaucratic processes, choices are made, relevant not only to the bureaucratic system, but also to scientists, NGO members, governments, the public, etc. These choices are not purely scientific, many societal issues are addressed, many ethical choices are made. When a new technology (or technological approach, like constructing biology in synthetic biology) is introduced, this brings about new ethical considerations, as stated above. In a changing society, and in our current system, it is probably necessary that scientists themselves also realize what they are doing, what the implications may be, why they are doing what they are doing, etc. That is exactly why ethical considerations are interesting to investigate within the iGEM project group of the TU Delft.

What do we need in advance?

Before these individual team member analyses can be carried out, a road-map of the ethical considerations that are associated with synthetic biology need to be investigated. Therefore, a literature survey is carried out, exploring the general, "macro" ethical sides of synthetic biology. With this road map, a framework for a questionnaire has been developed, by which the ethical considerations on the individual "micro" level will be analysed.

What will we do to achieve this?

Please read the methods section to read more about the used approach.