A Global Forum on Synthetic Biology: The Need for International Engagement
Governments around the world are redefining dual-use and critical technologies with reference to current politics, economic competitiveness, and current global power distributions. It has never been more important for practitioners of synthetic biology to achieve consistency in the language they use to present the discipline to policymakers nationally and internationally. A global forum can guide the co-creation of scientific and technical language for global policy discussions that involve synthetic biology, including areas of uncertainty, dual use, and differing viewpoints. Practitioners can counter the synthetic biology misinformation that persists in international governmental organizations by inviting their representatives into the “tent.” A Global Forum can work with these existing communities to gain trust and loyalty. Synthetic biology’s response to Covid-19 offers a series of case studies with which the discipline can positively frame its potential to respond to a wide range of biological crises and global stochastic shocks.
Foresight and expert elicitation exercises, such as those developed by the Center for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, point the way forward.14.15. Importantly, as these processes necessarily map, classify and create a taxonomy for future issues, this work co-creates the language of synthetic biology at the policy-practitioner interface.
At a time when trust between nations is deteriorating, this work is essential at the international level. For example, a horizon scanning proposal was orally adopted at the 24th meeting of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice to the Convention on Biological Diversity16. Bilateral and multilateral engagements can also function as confidence-building measures, allowing countries to share concerns as new uses for synthetic biology emerge. For example, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is considering a proposal to create a Global Forum on Emerging Technologies, with an initial focus on synthetic biology, following its high-level global conference ” Technology in and for Society” in December 2021.
The second way dialogues between biofoundry groupings, such as the International Gene Synthesis Consortium and the Global Biofoundry Alliance, are basic communication channels in this context. The first EBRC Global Forum on Engineering Biology 1.0 in 2019 held an international summit on national synthetic biology roadmaps and strategies. It brought together leading policy practitioners from over 15 countries with active synthetic biology strategies to discuss their national strategies, including risks and challenges. The EBRC 2.0 Global Forum is scheduled for late 2022 to address new developments in these national strategies.
A Global Forum on Synthetic Biology would build on these initial endeavors to significantly broaden and deepen the dialogue on a much larger scale by enabling global collaboration and coordination. This could include at least seven dimensions: (i) sharing information as the hub of the network—benefits, risks, practical steps and lessons, and leveraging limited financial resources; (ii) the development of agreed technical guidance/consensus documents for use by policy makers and regulators that do not prejudge individual policies and policy decisions (the OECD Guidance/Consensus Reports on Biotech Crops provide an excellent example)17; (iii) link synthetic biology practitioners more closely to multilateral policy makers and international forums; (iv) facilitate increased global collaborations and coordination, including initiatives to address grand societal challenges or better integrate synthetic biology into ongoing global efforts such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); (v) help to “de-risk” synthetic biology, including security, governance and finance/investments; (vi) better integration of synthetic biology with broader initiatives around the bioeconomy, sustainability and bio-based production; and (vii) develop systemic responses to issues of diversity and inclusion in synthetic biology. This should include a first-principles approach to balancing the perspectives and goals of high-income countries with those of developing countries and promoting an inclusive global synthetic biology community, while recognizing that a “no size unique” will be necessary to integrate important considerations related to diversity, equity and inclusion.
The Global Forum should aspire to be the preeminent venue for discussing emerging synthetic biology issues that currently have no natural place among existing international forums, regional frameworks or bilateral agreements. We propose that this Global Forum on Synthetic Biology begin by bringing together the communities of policy practitioners from the EBRC, Genome Project Write (GPW), International Gene Synthesis Consortium (IGSC), Global Biofoundry Alliance (GBA) , the iGEM Foundation (iGEM), the BioBricks Foundation (BBF), the Bioindustrial Manufacturing and Design Ecosystem (BioMADE), and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). We propose eight founders because of their political-practitioner maturity and their role as key players in defining the future of synthetic biology (Fig. 2). From the outset, however, the Forum should invite observers and representatives of other key communities. This could include representatives from intergovernmental forums, non-governmental insiders, and research funders, as they are likely to join in subsequent membership expansions. The early inclusion of key stakeholders outside of the eight founders will help ensure the long-term legitimacy of the Forum, but perhaps more importantly, a greater diversity of viewpoints leads to better political outcomes guaranteeing the Foundations Forum strong and durable.
We propose a focused base eight to establish the Forum and quickly reach consensus on the initial agenda. The Forum must first reach consensus on specific, measurable and time-bound objectives and processes to expand its membership and scope. This will ensure that the Forum’s efforts are focused and set the Forum’s anticipated contributions against the many other dialogues, consortia, conventions, projects, companies and organizations that could partially, but never fully, achieve the goal of a Global Forum on Synthetic biology.
Although we have defined seven dimensions that should define the work of the Forum, we propose five specific objectives at the outset: (i) to develop a landscape analysis of existing global, regional and national synthetic biology initiatives that can inform priorities and the future directions of the Forum; (ii) use the convening power of the Global Forum to explore unmet needs and identify global institutional gaps in the landscape of synthetic biology governance and responsible innovation; (iii) develop a roadmap for publishing and sharing consensus/guidance technical reports on key next-generation synthetic biology topics that cut across policy-making and regulatory decision-making; (iv) explore innovative models and best practices for policy and practitioner engagement focused on anticipating technological surprise in synthetic biology while promoting its benefits to address global societal challenges; and (v) develop a membership expansion model that will ensure the financial sustainability and longevity of Forum activities. The Forum should seek to make measurable progress towards achieving these initial objectives within a maximum of 24 to 36 months.
If the Forum grows too quickly, too soon, it will fail in its primary mission to engage the global community of practitioners with national and international policy makers. However, from the foundation, there needs to be a roadmap for membership expansion for the Forum to be inclusive. This roadmap should provide a membership pathway for research funding organizations, scientific societies, intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental initiatives, businesses and communities potentially impacted by the deployment of advanced biotechnology. We fully recognize that a Global Forum on Synthetic Biology cannot be everything to everyone, but if founded effectively, it can become the premier venue for global engagement of policy and practitioner in the age of technical biology. The world needs a place to broaden and deepen discussions of synthetic biology beyond the remit of one issue, convention, or regulatory framework.