Engaging early: using anticipatory and inclusive governance to identify areas of ecological uncertainty in synthetic biology

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Julie McNamara, Eleonore Pauwels, Todd Kuiken, Ken Oye

MIT, United States

As innovations in synthetic biology pave the way for the shift of engineered organisms from the laboratory to the field, the need for understanding the ecological implications of such releases becomes increasingly important. However, the area still contains data gaps and scientific uncertainties. These uncertainties have constrained assessments looking to understand what, and how, to adequately assess risks, and scientists looking to reduce possible hazards. Recently, a series of workshops were convened to attempt to identify and delineate these uncertainties. Stakeholders from across academia, industry, government, and non-governmental organizations gathered to identify hazards associated with synthetic organisms and their interaction with the environment, and develop research agendas to address these concerns. These workshops successfully constituted an exercise of anticipatory and inclusive governance as they translated technological uncertainties about potential risks to health and ecosystems in a way that can be discussed early and treated by scientists and policy makers in an inclusive setting. Here, we 1) present the primary findings from these workshops, and 2) assess the success of the methodology from which they were built.