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May 27th, 2009
In 2003, business writers Chris Meyer and Stan Davis published a book called It's Alive: The Coming Convergence of Information, Biology and Business. In this book, they described the emergence of a new "molecular economy" based on an increasing ability to "...see, simulate, and manipulate matter at a molecular level" (1). Today, one could argue that this ability to control matter extends below the molecular level to the atomic level, a scale at which nanoscience and nanoengineering operate.
This creative convergence sounds exciting but scientific advance and technological innovation do not come without some risks, so it is important to tackle concerns early to maintain high levels of public and investor confidence. Despite a federal investment of $1.5 billion in nanotechnology research and development in 2008, the amount devoted to understanding environmental, health and safety impacts is still a small fraction (below 4 percent). It is unclear how much is being spent on addressing the potential risks of synthetic biology, but the numbers and the strategy need to be openly debated and soon. Navigating the shoals of public opinion around synthetic biology will be much more difficult than nanotechnology. The public and the press, especially in Europe, will view synthetic biology through the lens created by the debate over genetically modified organisms, and some recent research shows that the American public may be highly suspicious of scientists creating novel genetic code (10, 11, 12).
Turning innovations in the molecular economy into viable products, jobs, and commercial markets is not a given. It will require some new thinking and new relationships between government, business, and the public. For instance, most of our oversight system is still stuck in the old economy of bulk chemicals, paper-based transactions, and bricks-and-mortar commerce. Our regulatory agencies - from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Food and Drug Administration - need to study the recipe book that is driving change on the technological frontier and stop re-heating yesterday's meals. We may need new statutes, new organizations, and even a new social contract between scientists and the public, but, given the promises of the molecular economy, it will be worth the effort (13, 14).
(1) Meyer, C. & Davis, S. (2003). It's Alive: The Coming Convergence of Information, Biology and Business. NY: Random House.
(2) Jaikumar, R. (1988). From Filing to Fitting to Flexible Manufacturing: A Study in the Evolution of Process Control (Harvard Business School Working Paper #88-045).
(3) Romer, P. (1991). Increasing Returns and New Development in the Theory of Growth. In W. Barnett, B. Cornet & C. D'Aspremont (Eds.), Equilibrium Theory and Applications: Proceedings of the 6th International Symposium in Economic Theory and Econometrics . Cambridge University Press.
(4) An inventory of manufacturer-identified, nano-based consumer products is available at: http://www.nanotechproject.org/44
(5) Beachhead Consulting. (2006). Synthetic Biology, A New Paradigm For Biological Discovery.
(6) An interactive map of nanotechnology activities can be found at: http://www.nanotechproject.org/inventories/map/ . An inventory of entities involved in synthetic biology can be found at: http://www.synbioproject.org/library/inventories/map/ .
(7) Lucas, R. (1988). On the Mechanics of Economic Development. Journal of Monetary Economics, 22, 3-42.
(8) Florida, R. (2006, October). Where the Brains Are. The Atlantic Monthly. Retrieved: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200610/american-brains .
(9) See: Do-It-Yourself Biology at http://diybio.org/ .
(10) Kronberger, N., et al. (2009). Old Wine in New Bottles?: Communicating Synthetic Biology in the Public Sphere. Systems and Synthetic Biology (forthcoming).
(11) Hart Research. (2008). Awareness Of and Attitudes Towards Nanotechnology and Synthetic Biology. Washington, DC: Synthetic Biology Project. Available at: http://www.synbioproject.org/library/publications/archive/6019/
(12) Pauwels, E. & Ifrim, I. (2008). Trends in American and European Press Coverage of Synthetic Biology. Washington, DC: Synthetic Biology Project. Available at: http://www.synbioproject.org/library/publications/archive/why_scientists_should_care/
(13) Bonini, S. M., et al. (2006, May). When Social Issues Become Strategic. McKinsey Quarterly.
(14) A recent proposal to create a new Department of Consumer and Environmental Protection can be found in: Davies, T. (2009). Oversight of Next Generation Nanotechnology. Washington, DC: Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. Available at: http://www.nanotechproject.org/news/archive/davies4/