Expert says dialogue is missing element in development of synthetic biology

By Hank Schultz contact

- Last updated on GMT

Image: © iStockPhoto / Toa55
Image: © iStockPhoto / Toa55
The development of synthetic modes of the production of food and dietary ingredients holds great promise both in terms of sustainability and greater functionality. But a prominent researcher says that defeats on the public relations front could endanger the entire effort.

Todd Kuiken, PhD is a senior research associate at the Synthetic Biology Project​ at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.  Work at the institute is supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Kuiken said the project takes a broad view of emerging technologies.

“The program looks at a couple of different emerging technologies;  we look at things that we think will be game changers. We look at ways to maximize the benefits while minimizing the risk,”​ Kuiken told NutraIngredients-USA.

ToddKuikenPhoto-Headshot
Courtesy of IFT

“We also want to look at whether the governmental structure around these emerging technologies, like synthetic biology or nanotechnology, will be able to handle these technologies, and whether funding levels are up to the task.”

So, for Kuiken and his project, the question is not whether the technologies are “good”, it’s about how to derive the most benefit from them in the most rational manner. R&D will happen whether advocates of one approach or another like it or not, Kuiken said.

“We try to take a holistic approach to these technologies and we try to do it as far as upstream as possible. We are trying to maximize the benefits while trying to minimize the risk,”​ Kuiken said.

Perception becomes reality

Kuiken said that biotech companies have been known for being ham fisted when it comes to dealing with the public perception of their developments. The understandable default position of trying to keep your trade secrets to yourself for competitive reasons can appear from the viewpoint of less informed onlookers to be trying to hide something that would derail a technology if vetted in the court of public opinion. Once these kinds of issues come into the hands of influencers such as certain bloggers, the situation can become so overheated that rational discourse becomes difficult and input from experts versed in the technology can start to look like dissembling.

“There is a lot of work to be done around public engagement and public perception. We don’t try to influence what the final outcome will be, but we do try to understand how to have a better dialogue. We want to understand where the public even knows about these technologies, what their feelings are,”​ Kuiken said.

“We are looking at to how to do public engagement better. How do the scientists who are doing these research projects better discuss what their goals are?”​ he said.

Kuiken offered a recent example of how the approach can work to the benefit of all stakeholders, including those who may have reservations about a technology.  The project recently worked with companies developing synthetic algae strains that form a key part of biofuels production. One question that has always hovered over synthetic fermentation production modes using yeast or algae is what could happen if these altered organisms escape into the environment and start to proliferate there.

“We wanted to get in a room together. We wanted to look at how algae operates out in the ecosystem.  We had NGOs, regulators, people from companies. We find when you get all of those people together you can work through all these issues,”​ Kuiken said.

“A lot of the people developing these products are engineers who don’t necessarily have the training in the ecological components of the technology. If you get them in that room early enough they can change the way they are developing those products to address some of those concerns,”​ he said.

Kuiken is one of the experts featured in a series of articles written at the behest of the Institute of Food Technologists called the FutureFood 2050.

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