SBPWG:Meetings/July 27 2011

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Meeting Notes: July 27th 2011

Wednesday July 27th 6:30-8:30pm

Stanford Y2E2 Building, 473 Via Ortega, Stanford, CA - Room 299 (Red Atrium, 2nd Floor) map

Guest Speaker

Title: Practical Perspectives on Programming the Practice of Synthetic Biology

Speaker: Drew Endy

Overview: Work and dreaming under the broad label "synthetic biology" stimulates and sustains many conversations regarding known or imagined outcomes. Rarely these conversations coalesce into an implicit or explicit (re)shaping of tools that prescribe or bias what is expected of individual or group actions. I'll use examples (e.g., DNA synthesis screening guidelines, RAC guidelines update, and property rights puzzles) to examine (i) what actors, relationships, and conditions shape the shaping of synthetic biology practice, (ii) how long it can take to make incremental progress in such work, and (iii) imagine what next steps might happen.


0. Welcome, Introductions, News

1. Gap Minding Update

2. Guest Speaker: Drew Endy

3. Discussion

4. Follow Up


  • Megan Palmer
  • Ryan Ritterson
  • Joseph Shih
  • Jay Vowles
  • Sara Aguiton
  • Josh Wolf
  • Kevin Costa
  • Andy Chang
  • Monica Ortiz
  • Jon Rodriguez
  • Paul Jashe
  • Adwoa Boakye
  • Joseph Jackson
  • Reid Williams
  • Ton Subsoontorn
  • Stephanie Galanie
  • Drew Endy (Guest Speaker)
  • Chris Anderson (could not call in)


0. Welcome, Introductions, News

Megan gave an overview of the history of the group

Everyone introduced themselves: who are you, where are you from, why are you here?

  • Megan, Postdoc at Stanford, interested in how we understand and actualize ‘responsibily’ in sci and tech development
  • Joseph Shiu, assistant professor from Silver lab (Harvard) just arriving at Stanford, wants to be part of these types of discussions; how SB should be related to society
  • Jon Rodriguez, Computer scientist, AI and Gen Engineering need good decisions.
  • Adwoa Boakye from Ohio studying at MIT, NASA this summer (MUST scholar), interested in when people meet like this, understanding what is the effect of their work
  • Andy Chang, Smolke's Lab, interested in the relation between science and the perception of the public.
  • Ryan Ritterson, UCSF, not gonna stay at the bench, interested in policy and law, if we don't organize, SB might elicit the same controversies, stagnation as stemcell research
  • Josh Wolf, Smolke's lab, how people view our work in the society.
  • Jay Vowles, Caltech – now at Stanford, science and public perception of science.
  • Stephanie Galanie, Smolke lab, chemistry working in BioEngineering. Sustainable chemistry to do pharmaceutical product. How to use bio not by "using" the earth.
  • Ton, Drew's lab, came because Megan told me to come.
  • Paul, Drew's lab, just want to see what it's all about
  • Monica, Drew's lab, here because interested in science and policy - look for ways to join both
  • Sara A, Paris, interested in how scientists approach these areas
  • Kevin, SynBERC, interested in SB & society generally
  • Reid Williams, UCSF, see more dimensions in SB than the one we see everyday in our research – would like to see the larger context

1. Gap Minding Update

Megan gave out copies of the revised gap list as well as links to the Wilson center's version of the gap list. See here

2. Guest Speaker: Drew Endy

  • Video of Drew Endy's Talk (password: sbpwg)
  • Drew Endy's Slides

Key Take-Aways

1) Patience is a virtue (frustrating).

  • Every idea you can have on the bench could be not at all understood by other, you might know that

2) More people will be involved than you expect.

  • You can expect some people to act, and you won't see them, but other, and you'll be surprise by how many invisible people can work on what you have in mind.

3) Both process and product will be unsatisfying.

4) External driver and reality matter.

  • External driver: the issue-pusher can really change the way things happen.
  • Reality matters: A problem (opposed to an opportunity) is placed upon a never-ending list of problems. If your problem is not at the head of the queue, you should bring a solution and not expect the government to deal with your problem, because they are so many problem.

5) Intrinsic bias towards enabling research.

  • People from the government (and not people from civil society) are looking for future economic-competitiveness but also strong wariness about screwing this up.

Looking Forward

1) Work on the thing you care about

2) Actions trumps inaction

3) You as/are expert

  • If you actually do something, you become that person. You will become a resource, a leader, etc. It's no difference about any other research. You are the expert, you actually are. Most people who craft policy don't practice. You have a big advantage here: you know reality, you practice. Don't hide that advantage from your work.

3. Discussion

The group posed several questions throughout and after Drew's talk. Here is one question that was particularly relevant for this group:

Megan: What was the best/worst thing about syn bio working groups in the past? What lessons can this group learn from?

Drew: I don't want to depress you, because this [gap] list is definitely better than nothing. The explicit end of this talk is motivating, you really should do it.

The best thing about the MIT SBWG was to define a base for community. Community matters: it's a home for reflection, for challenges, for food.

So, the best thing about the working group is that it provided a home. Community is precious.

The thing I wish we've done differently: we were too "US versus Them". We were too isolated, it was a forest, public forest, political forest, technical - scientific forest, you have friends and "antis" everywhere.

4. Follow Up

Questions to Working Group Participants

The day after the meeting, Megan sent the following email request to working group participants in order to determine how best to align the group's future activities with their interests.

Thank you to everyone that attended the working group meeting last night. I hope you took away a better understanding of the reality of positively shaping synthetic biology practices/policy, and the importance of (i) honing in on your personal motivations/interests, (ii) realizing your expertise, (iii) cultivating sustaining relationships, and (iv) taking action.

To ensure this group’s activities evolve in a way aligned with these criteria, I’m hoping that you might respond to the questions below over the next few days. Some answers may already have surfaced in part through earlier conversations individually and collectively, but I appreciate you reiterating them here. Be as brief or lengthy as you would like.

1. What are the questions, issues or topics that motivate your interest and involvement in Practices? How do you see these relating to your current or anticipated future work?

2. What types of activities, projects, resources, or people do you see helping advance (y)our knowledge, capacity and desire to address these interests?

3. What level of engagement do you ideally envision with this group, and what determines this engagement? For instance, would you like to attend programs (seminars, workshops etc), (co-)lead programs, (co-)write papers, coordinate across activities? Are there other constraints or commitments that might shape this?

4. What other feedback/suggestions do you have for making this group meaningful and aligned with your interests and motivations? Have we missed opportunities?

5. Can I share your responses (on the wiki, with others)?

Selected Responses

Responses (anonymous) are listed below. Please check them out and feel free to edit/add.

Question 1

1. What are the questions, issues or topics that motivate your interest and involvement in Practices? How do you see these relating to your current or anticipated future work?

  • My interest in Practices stems from my general interest in sensible policy and good governance, and not just with respect to science. Of course, as a researcher I am interested and personally invested in how public policy may affect my research in the future. Working on science policy is one of many options I am considering for my future career.
  • I joined practices for two major reasons: the first because I am interesting in the intellectual choices we make that inevitably frame our practical work; I like thinking about what I'm doing instead of just doing it all the time. The second is because I see major gaps between where we are and where we need to be in order for SB to be as successful as it could be. I am primarily interested in intellectual property rights as they are associated with biological devices as well as the perception and knowledge gap between practicing scientists and politicians/the general public with respect to our work. These are the most important to me both because I have run into them in my own work, and because I like thinking about defining a logical framework for IP protection as it will, I think, help us define our own working framework for working on biological parts and devices.
  • I am interested in communicating synthetic biology concepts, projects, and opportunities/threats to the general public, so that they can make an informed decision for themselves about things like public funding, laws/regulations, etc.
  • a) What are practices and how do they impact the interactions between synthetic biologists and the rest of society? Need to know what they are to know how they relate. b) How do synthetic biology and society reciprocally influence each other? I am a synthetic biologist for at least the forseeable future, and a member of society for longer even than that. Synthetic biology will impact everybody's lives in unforeseen ways, and I want to begin to build a framework to effectively integrate new issues into everyday experiences as they develop.
  • Regarding Practices, my top interest would be something related to the impact of synthetic biology to third world countries. I have a commitment to go back and work in xxx at some point after finishing my Ph.D. It's likely that I will be one of the the first few scholars in xxx who have been exposed to synthetic biology, both the research and community aspects of it. By that time, I would like to be comfortable helping my folks getting started: building community, starting research programs (that are feasible and practical give our limited resources), adopting technologies, interacting with the public etc.
  • I am motivated to work in the Practices group because I believe there is a dire need for science to be communicated in an effective and accessible way to the general public. I believe that the more transparent science becomes, the more people will want to get involved in the scientific enterprise, or at least have a favorable view of science. I also think that it is important to leverage the relatively tight-knit synthetic biology community by developing progressive standards that are agreed upon by the vast majority of the community. There is the potential for the synthetic biology community to be a model for other scientific fields in regard to public accessibility, open access publishing, etc. I currently see myself continuing to work with synthetic biology tools in the biofuels field and emphasizing outreach at every reasonable opportunity.
  • I think there is a lack of knowledge on the scientific side of syn bio (and other fields as well) about how to relate to the public and how to mitigate negative responses to our research and possible ethics violations. I think what motivates me the most, is having been surrounded by engineers and scientists for the past 8 years, I've noticed that many of them will say things or act in ways that I feel contribute to the negative stereotypes of people in our field and only make it harder for us to continue to do our research and receive funding, as well as instill greater policy change when absolutely necessary (e.g. the issue of climate change, which I think still has some skeptics). The prevalence of climate change skeptics is more of an example of other external factors preventing data from being accepted (i.e. such as religious beliefs) but I think that this issue illustrates the huge knowledge gap between lay people and scientists, and scientists ability to communicate effectively to lay people without offending or condescending. I feel that I might be able to help in this arena since I am an engineer but I also have the ability to step outside my research and think about how the project might look to an outsider. The fact that such things concern me, when they do not seem to concern all scientists/engineers (in my opinion/observations) leads me to believe I might be a good candidate as a "liason" between lay people and the scientific community, perhaps getting involved through public policy or just through groups such as SBPWG.
  • Applications of synthetic biology, specifically those involving release of SynBio products into the natural world.

Question 2

2. What types of activities, projects, resources, or people do you see helping advance (y)our knowledge, capacity and desire to address these interests?

  • I would love to see debates between different stakeholders. All too often, I leave events with the feeling that only a single viewpoint has been professed. The inclusion of different viewpoints is necessary in developing my own thinking on these types of issues. I've also (recently) found that much of the language used in policy (e.g., precautionary principle, definition of risk) is quite different than I had thought. Maybe future workshops that touch upon these would be helpful?
  • seek broad input from the synthetic biology community about what they feel are the most germane issues in synbio today…representation from all of the expected "experts" in synthetic biology, and …. the best "pearls of wisdom" we can find. Also, it might be useful to get input from stakeholders in the broader community. For example, it might be interesting to get some input from the usual critics, as well as less represented stakeholders (an artemisia farmer, for example) about how synthetic biology is affecting their livelihoods.
  • As has been discussed, we need to educate ourselves about these issues through speakers, papers, discussions, multimedia experiences, community outreach, community inreach, conversations, etc. I think the only way to figure out what we need to know is to figure out what we don't know, but we won't know that until we start actively looking.
  • I think this working group is a perfect way to advance my knowledge in science policy. It facilitates interaction with other people with the same interests and is a good starting point for the organization of future projects, such as the Bay Area Science Festival.
  • With respect to IP protection, I think a best first attempt would be to gather as wide a net of stakeholders and likely experts and just converse freely for a time. It seems that many of us have been considering these ideas in isolation and from our own perspectives, without knowledge of some of the others. For example, I know a great deal about what will not work in practice in the lab, but very little about what is practical/impractical from a legal standpoint. An IP lawyer may be in the reverse position. I feel like a simple guest seminar by a practicing lawyer may be of little use, as learning current frameworks may not be particularly useful if we have to define a new one, and I feel like I have a good basic grasp of current IP law. Stakeholders that come to mind include lawyers, USPTO employees, as well as industrial and academic researchers.
  • With respect to closing the perception gap, it is hard to know how to begin, because the gap is so large and the number of people involved enormous. I have little experience working with the public to change perception, but talking to educators and public relations experts might be useful. Personally, I would feel more engaged talking to policy makers, so conversing with the Wilson center about forming a conversation with those in Washington would be useful. Inviting local politicians into SF to talk about the relative friendliness they have toward biotechnology would be great too. At the local level, time is easier to come by and the stakes much lower, so the cost of moving backwards is much smaller given the great chance to recover later
  • Unfortunately, I don't have a specific answer for this question yet but I would love to have something that will end with a list of action items and some criteria to evaluate the outcomes. I totally understand that, unlike science or engineering projects, Practices is much harder to evaluate. One possible idea I have is to try dedicating one or two meetings focusing on the histories and lessons of Practice from other fields. After seeing enough examples of obvious "success" and "failure" in the past, we might be able to figure something out.
  • Working group meetings to develop policy; taking advantage of SynBERC retreats and syn bio meetings/conferences to propose community standards. We can also use the email lists to float our ideas to the community. The Bay Area Science Festival is going to be really good for advancing syn bio outreach goals. There are programs where grade schoolers with ideas work with scientists...could be possible for syn bio. Projects: 1) Develop an open access summary figure aimed at the general public for every syn bio publication. 2) Syn bio young investigators' symposium. 3) Community wide open access publishing standard. To advance these projects, I would like to talk to people that see their value and have ideas on how to make them a reality. If they were to gain some momentum and some traction, they could end up changing the scientific landscape.
  • I think more seminars/workshops/conferences that address specific policy issues in the sciences would be helpful to get scientists more comfortable even discussing the issues. Here at xxx we have a certificate program for Science and Tech. Policy, though I am not sure how the certificate is used in the professional realm. I also took a look at the SEA website, and I think linking up with that group or having speakers come talk to younger, interested grad students might get more of us on the policy track.

Question 3

3. What level of engagement do you ideally envision with this group, and what determines this engagement? For instance, would you like to attend programs (seminars, workshops etc), (co-)lead programs, (co-)write papers, coordinate across activities? Are there other constraints or commitments that might shape this?

  • My involvement in this group stems primarily from an interest to learn more about how to think about and shape policy as I am interested in entering policy after graduating. I am more than willing to help co-lead discussions, co-write papers, etc. if related to the topics that motivate me most. Co-lead/write due to my lack of experience.
  • I am happy to spearhead activities if there is a need (both the presence of interested parties and the lack of other leadership) and participate in activities developed by others. I will do anything that seems useful, and my level of engagement will be determined by my perception of utility.
  • I would like a high level of engagement with this group but I also need to get my PhD eventually. I want to be involved in seminars, workshops, papers, etc, but my research has to come first. I'll find time to work with the group as much as I can.
  • I tend to be an impatient person, and a good coordinator. Activities that are more 'doing' than 'thinking' are more satisfying to me. I am happy to attend workshops and seminars that are relevant to my direct interest, but I am more excited about roundtable discussions, and leading programs and writing papers.
  • I'm totally up for a small group brainstorming session. I could also help coordinating activities but I don't have one in mind yet.
  • Is somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 hours a month reasonable? My engagement is determined by the time that I have outside of the time that I put into doing what I get paid to do (bench research). I am also involved in a couple other volunteer organizations. Monthly working group meetings off campus are certainly sustainable. Biweekly meetings on campus wouldn't be a problem. Gearing up for writing a paper would be cool. All of those options sound great - no reason why I wouldn't be able to do those at least once.
  • Obviously I am constrained by location, but I would like to attend programs (if possible) and help write papers. If funding were available to send students to the workshops that would make it much more feasible, though I could also possibly apply for a travel grant.

Question 4

4. What other feedback/suggestions do you have for making this group meaningful and aligned with your interests and motivations? Have we missed opportunities?

  • The group seems to be filled with people coming in with different levels of experience, different motivations, different thoughts, etc. I haven't quite grasped (possibly my own problem) the specific purpose of the group yet and, if others feel the same, it's possible that attendance could peter out with nothing actually being accomplished. I really think we can do something meaningful!
  • One feature … that I really appreciated was the diversity of activities
  • Everyone seems to nod in agreement when the idea of inviting speakers comes up, but nothing has come of that yet. My time actually isn't valuable - according to my paycheck I'm worth about $13 dollars an hour most weeks - but there are always choices about how to allocate my time and I want to make sure my choices add value.
  • I guess I've been involved in 2 professional groups, but only valued one of them. However, I can use the contrapositive of the bad experiences to derive things I value overall. 1) Exposure to concepts beyond my immediate experiences that nevertheless directly impact my immediate experiences. 2) The opportunity to not only exchange ideas, but question their foundations to learn about the system/world in which I'm operating. 3) Shared responsibility for facilitating items 1 and 2. 4) Experiencing a range of perspectives that impact items 1-3. 5) The chance to hear smart people talk about things they care about.
  • You talk about needing strong leaders, but maybe those need to be developed rather than coronated, and a more concrete framework might push people to adopt leadership roles. I am personally more inclined to participate in something that is defined - even if I don't completely support that definition - than something undefined. I would be happy to find a speaker on campus - I've been poking around the Law and the Biosciences program for a year now and want to know if they have any thoughts on synthetic biology - but one speaker doesn't get you very far. Will one seminar inspire another? Maybe. Perhaps there's only one way to find out.
  • If the group sees value in something, we should develop that idea, and then have a pipeline to pitch it to those who could adopt the policy and have even bigger impact on the community as a whole.
  • The most important thing our group lacks is diversity of background. It would be great to bring in more people from outside of science who are interested in our cause.