How do you feel about scientists and interested parties meeting behind closed doors at an invitation-only meeting to discuss creating a second human genome, a synthetic one? The meeting has caused a bit of a stir generating a May 13, 2016 article by Andrew Pollack for the New York Times (NYT) and blog postings including Andrew Balmer’s May 18, 2016 posting for the Guardian. There’s also a measured and somewhat sympathetic account of what happened by Jeff Bessen in a May 24, 2015 essay for The Conversation (h/t phys.org).
Starting at the beginning, the May 13, 2016 article by Pollack gives an overview of what has caused the consternation,
Scientists are now contemplating the fabrication of a human genome, meaning they would use chemicals to manufacture all the DNA contained in human chromosomes.
The prospect is spurring both intrigue and concern in the life sciences community because it might be possible, such as through cloning, to use a synthetic genome to create human beings without biological parents.
While the project is still in the idea phase [emphasis mine], and also involves efforts to improve DNA synthesis in general, it was discussed at a closed-door meeting on Tuesday [May 10, 2016] at Harvard Medical School in Boston. The nearly 150 attendees were told not to contact the news media or to post on Twitter during the meeting.
Organizers said the project could have a big scientific payoff and would be a follow-up to the original Human Genome Project, which was aimed at reading the sequence of the three billion chemical letters in the DNA blueprint of human life. The new project, by contrast, would involve not reading, but rather writing the human genome — synthesizing all three billion units from chemicals.
Balmer’s May 18, 2016 posting focuses on the secrecy aspect,
Secrecy has long been a part of scientific and innovation practices. For instance, research on nuclear, biological or chemical weapons is often conducted in secret. In his excellent book on Secrecy and Science, Brian Balmer [relation to Andrew?] describes how the Manhattan Project epitomised the way in which scientific secrecy operates, explaining how specific sites were kept secret, but also how projects were compartmentalised, so that knowledge was exchanged only on a ‘need-to-know’ basis, meaning that only a very few people had any real understanding of the programme as a whole. In other words, attempts to maintain secrecy often go hand-in-hand with imperatives of efficiency, security, bureaucracy and control.
By their nature, it is often the most controversial, risky and ethically dubious research programmes that are conducted in secret, curtained-off from society in order to protect knowledge and technology not only from public scrutiny but also espionage or corporate theft. …
As Pollack notes in his NYT article, this is at the idea stage (i.e., it is unfunded) and one of the organizers claims that people have gotten the wrong idea about the project,
George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and an organizer of the proposed project, said there had been a misunderstanding. The project was not aimed at creating people, just cells, and would not be restricted to human genomes, he said. Rather it would aim to improve the ability to synthesize DNA in general, which could be applied to various animals, plants and microbes.
“They’re painting a picture which I don’t think represents the project,” Dr. Church said in an interview.
He said the meeting was closed to the news media, and people were asked not to tweet because the project organizers, in an attempt to be transparent, had submitted a paper to a scientific journal. They were therefore not supposed to discuss the idea publicly before publication. He and other organizers said ethical aspects have been amply discussed since the beginning.
Balmer explores reasons why a synthetic genome might hold appeal for scientists and notes a pitfall with current communication strategies (Note: A link has been removed),
Such a second world might be quite appealing to some researchers, representing a space in which they could run wild with their ideas without the worry of public ears overhearing. Synthetic biologists, for the most part, expect that the public is going to be scared of developments in the field, leading to what has been termed ‘synbiophobia phobia’ – the fear that the public will fear their work. This could well be at the root of the decision to hold the meeting in private, as the organisers had likely anticipated public fear at the potential of creating a human genome from scratch. But it also seems to have been a fear of the media that resulted in the curtains being pulled closed, with the invite reading, “We intentionally did not invite the media, because we want everyone to speak freely and candidly without concerns about being misquoted or misinterpreted as the discussions evolve.”
In fact, there was unintended consequence (from Balmer’s post), Note: A link has been removed,
… whatever the motivations were of those convening the closed-doors, invite-only meeting, the effect of the apparent concealment has been to worry people, even those who support synthetic biology in general. In fact, one of its most well-known advocates, Drew Endy, refused to attend and co-authored an open letter criticising the closed meeting.
As Endy and Laurie Zoloth’s letter argued, “The creation of new human life is one of the last human-associated processes that has not yet been industrialized or fully commodified. It remains an act of faith, joy, and hope. Discussions to synthesize, for the first time, a human genome should not occur in closed rooms.”
Balmer goes on to note that this secrecy has invited exactly the response the organizers feared.
Pollack’s article, which delves into the synthesis of various genomes at more length, ends with this,
Jeremy Minshull, chief executive of DNA2.0, a DNA synthesis company, questioned if the effort would be worth it.
“Our ability to understand what to build is so far behind what we can build,” said Dr. Minshull, who was invited to the meeting at Harvard but did not attend. “I just don’t think that being able to make more and more and more and cheaper and cheaper and cheaper is going to get us the understanding we need.”
Questioning whether the effort is worth it makes the reference to the Manhattan Project poignant. The Manhattan Project’s atomic bomb did not win the war against Japan. The country was ready to surrender the time the two bombs were dropped as Gar Alperovitz writes in his May 11, 2016 essay, We didn’t need to drop the bomb — and even our WW II military icons knew it, on Salon.com. In fact, those military icons argued against the bombing. Had there been less secrecy, it’s tempting to think we might have developed nuclear power somewhat differently.
I’m not unsympathetic to the organizers. They wanted some quiet time to develop ideas without critical scrutiny. It could be described as brainstorming or a creative process. As everyone knows successful brainstorming and creative processes require an uncritical environment at the beginning. The winnowing/critical process follows.
Bessen’s May 24, 2016 essay focuses on the relationship between scientists and journalists (who got this all wrong) and gives a sympathetic view of the original purpose for the meeting which was to share a paper whose embargo had been extended, making that impossible and putting the organizers in the position of having to scramble at the last minute,
Three weeks later, the exact details of what happened are still being contested. I’m a researcher in synthetic biology, and I learned of the project from reading the newspaper. I reached out to the meeting’s organizers, who – for reasons I’ll explain – declined to comment for this article. But in conversations with meeting invitees, as well as some critics, I’ve found that much of the press coverage was misleading, and says more about the relationship between journalists and scientists than the meeting itself.
What really happened behind closed doors when over 130 scientists, industry leaders and ethicists convened to talk about synthesizing a human genome? How did these sessions end up so widely misunderstood by the media and the public?
Those invited say the organizers hoped to inspire scientists and the public with a new grand challenge project: to advance from reading genomes to writing them, by manufacturing them from individual DNA building blocks. In an invitation dated March 30, the hosts proposed a bold collaborative effort to “synthesize a complete human genome within a cell line.” Panels tackled whether such an effort is worthwhile, as well as the ethical, technological and economic challenges.
The conversation was not intended to be restricted. The meeting organizers – Harvard geneticist George Church; New York University systems geneticist Jef Boeke; Andrew Hessel, of the Bio/Nano research group at Autodesk, Inc.; and Nancy J. Kelley, a lawyer specializing in biotechnology consulting – had plans to engage the broader scientific community, as well as industry, policy makers and the public. They made a video recording of the entire meeting, originally intended to be live-streamed over the Internet. They planned to apply for federal funding, which would invite regulatory oversight. And they submitted a white paper to a major peer-reviewed journal explaining the scientific, technological and ethical aspects of the project.
But the publication of the paper was delayed – editors commonly ask for revisions as part of the peer review process and Dr. Church told STAT News they wanted “more information about the ethical, social, and legal components of synthesizing genomes” included. (As of this writing, the paper has not yet come out.) The organizers are prohibited from discussing the paper in public until it is published – a common journal policy known as an embargo. In deference to the embargo, they declined to comment in detail for this article.
While Bessen is definitely sympathetic to the organizers, he does have some issues with what transpired but he saves some of his last words for a discussion of social media and traditional science publishing before finishing with a plea for balance,
The episode also points to an emerging conflict between social media and traditional science publishing. Research journals move at a glacial pace; nearly all of my colleagues have at at one point waited six months or more to publish. Will the long publication cycle and the normally obscure embargo policy be able to adjust to an era when scientific discussions happen at the speed of Twitter?
Researchers must rely on journalists for their communication skills and the audience they reach. And journalists will play a crucial role in facilitating the ethical discussion around synthetic biology – one whose stakeholders include scientists as well as ethicists, policy makers and the broader public – and what the goals and action items of such a debate will be. Critically, a balance must be struck between the watchdog role of the press and the legitimate needs of any profession to carry out some of their discussions in private. [emphases mine]
Despite the similarities between my conclusion and Besson’s, I drafted this post on May 18, 2016 and did not see Besson’s piece until this morning, May 25, 2016. In all probability we not the only two coming to the same conclusion.