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New Biology and Society:
Opportunities, Challenges and Myths
Roel van Driel
The shift from the old to the new biology, a natural thing to happen
The term ‘new biology’ is pretentious and sounds like the overpromising that is heard so often in biology. However, there are reasons to believe that the forthcoming decades will bring decisive progress in understanding how living organisms function. If true, it will have an unprecedented impact on our society. Why is this? To understand how biological systems function we ultimately have to unravel the interplay of the myriads of molecules that interact in time and space. Conceptually in its simplest form, this interplay is similar to the network of interactions between for instance electrical components in the TV set. However the complexity of biological systems is much bigger. For several reasons the complexity of biological systems is much bigger than that of a TV set. Life’s components are large numbers of molecules that move in space and continuously change properties e.g. due to chemical reaction. Complexity is further augmented because of the broad time scales and length scales that processes in living organisms are spanning. This extreme complexity severely hampers progress in for instance developing effective therapies and drugs. However, in the past decade we have seen the beginning of a fundamental change. We dramatically improve on identifying molecular components and their interaction in living organisms and we begin to develop novel approaches to deal with extreme complexity. The good news is that although biological systems are very complex, they are not infinitely so. The bad news is that, even if we in principle know how to do it, our society does not seem well prepared for tackle this problem. To effectively benefit from new biology dramatic changes are required in science and society.
Vision Assessment: Proposal for deconstructing visionary storylines related with emerging technologies
The career of new and emerging science and technology (NEST) in scientific, political and public debates is related with a specific role of futuristic visions put forward by scientists and by science managers. Futuristic visions around nanotechnology, the Converging Technologies and, now, Synthetic Biology, are not only technological visions but rather closely related with ideas, expectations, goals and models of future society, and, in part, also with assumptions about the future of human nature. Such visions do seemingly have a high impact on the related public debates (public attitudes, risk and chance perception) and on policy-making (mainly research funding). Their importance in factual debates is the main argument for postulating an early vision assessment in order to allow for more rationality, reflexivity, and transparency in these debates.
Design Requirements for Successful Public Participation in Communication and Governance of Science and Technology
Participation is an open and dynamic process in which there is space and time for exchanging facts and value judgments, for building shared views and also learning to cope with uncertainties and differences. Experts and laymen are involved in the same appraisal process. In participation practices the assumptions about communication as well as governance will be different from traditional public information or consultation processes. Participants are more equal, interactions more symmetrical and positions of power more balanced. Moreover, outcomes of these deliberations are explicitly connected with policy and decision making. Starting point for interactions between participants should be a transaction perspective rather than a more conventional transmission perspective. In communication as transaction mutual attribution of meaning and negotiation between (scientific) experts and publics serve as a basis for interactions. Communication as transmission is based on educating passive publics by experts and therefore does not account sufficiently for public concerns and questions. Essential is that each communication approach, transmission or transaction, implies a mode of governance which should be taken into account.
Constructive TA of newly emerging sciences and technologies
Drawing on what has been called the “philosophy” of technology assessment (reduce the costs of learning by trial-and-error which characterizes much of our handling of technology in society, by anticipating future developments and their impacts, and by accommodating such insights in decision making and its implementation; such anticipation is not limited to commissioned TA studies, but will be part of a societal learning process, in which many actors participate), constructive TA has developed a set of approaches to support and improve anticipation on societal embedding of newly emerging sciences and technologies, in terms of better anticipation as well as better action. For new biology, there is both societal embedding in terms of new products and services, as well as cultural and moral “embedding”. Proposals for “extended impact statements” (as in the Framework Program of the European Commission) could include cultural and moral impact statements, but there is as yet very little competence in creating good impact statements, nor in evaluating them. Dedicated learning activities are in order.
Hans V. Westerhoff and friends
The dynamics of the systems biology revolution
Neither Occam’s razor, nor minimum energy, is useful in biology. Because it does have general principles biology is more than physics and stamp collecting, much more. It aims to capture the true complexity of its objects, because that complexity produces function and because function matters.
The complexity of organisms is so vast that the urge to understand or cure them, calls for a biology much Bigger than physics. Not only will our individual genomes be sequenced, but deep sequencing, proteomics, and metabolomics will monitor how our individual tissues work, in detail. Developments will be information-pushed, so that limitless data will be generated and require ever larger data-storage facilities. Without proper directing, Big Biology will revert to the collecting of, now massive, numbers of stamps. After all, stamp collecting is rewarded in nature and science.
I will admit that the progress of ‘my’ molecular biology and biochemistry towards curing our main diseases has been appallingly slow. This is due our failure to embark on the realization that organisms differ completely from the sum of their components. We have failed to realize that the stamps will only help us cure disease if we organize them nonlinearly through models that correspond to reality, i.e. through ‘silicon cells’. Only such models may predict implications of molecular defects for the network functions that determine health and disease, especially as the models grow to become ‘silicon (or ‘virtual biochemical’) humans’.
The worldwide effort in biomedical research is enormous, and whether one likes it or not, twenty years from now there will be billions of models for thousands of parts of our bodies. We stand a choice: Either we allow these models to be an example of a modern Babylonian confusion, or we get organized, and ensure that the models are of sufficient quality and in the same language, so that they can be associated into models of the entire human.
Like physics in search of Higgs boson, Biology should now get organized; genomics has defined the problem as complex but finite hence solvable. Society should realize that the benefits that lie ahead are infinitely much larger than those of hadron colliders of the same price. In 30 years time health and disease may be predicted accurately. Individualized combinations of ten cheap block-buster drugs, with our body’s and our tumors’ responses monitored by metabolomics and deep sequencing, may cure us of both our diseases and of ageing, may make hospitalization unnecessary and may cripple the medical insurance companies because medicine has become so ……….. cheap.
All of this is utopia, especially because neither Life Science nor Life Science funding is up to this, and neither is the general public. Are we really more interested in our individual future healths? Or do we prefer to read about charms and planets and about dollars disappearing into black holes…..
It is about time that public health authorities begin to realize what is at stake with the upcoming systems biology and system medicine. And scientists should begin to realize that they should find ways to achieve the impossible, i.e. make the voters aware of what is in it for them: a science that makes their bodies function as smoothly as their C5.