SBPWG:Meetings/Sept 15 2011

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Meeting Notes: Sept 15 2011

Thursday Sept 15th 6:30-8:30pm

UCSF Byers Hall Room 313


0. Welcome, Introductions, News

1. Film Viewing and Discussion

2. Bay Area Science Festival Update

3. Syn Bio Practices Leadership Bootcamp/Workshop Discussion & Planning

4. Fall Meeting Schedule


  • Megan Palmer (Stanford)
  • Ryan Ritterson (UCSF)
  • Mike Fisher (Berkeley)
  • Danielle Tullman-Ercek (Berkeley)
  • Jay Vowles (Stanford)
  • Connie Eaves (UCSF; QB3)
  • Veronica Zepeda (UCSF; QB3)
  • John Cumbers (NASA/Brown)
  • Andy Chang (Stanford)
  • Josh Wolf (Stanford)
  • Sara Aguiton (Stanford)
  • Joseph Jackson (OpenScience; Biocurious)


0. Welcome, Introductions, News

1. Film Viewing and Discussion:


Hypothetical Risk: The Cambridge City Council Hearings on Recombinant DNA Research

[Video Link]

This fascinating video, recorded in 1976, occurs three years after the scientific community raised concern about the safety of recombinant DNA experiments and one month after the NIH issued guidelines to regulate recombinant DNA work. The cambridge city council is meeting with scientists (including Maxine Singer, Mark Ptashne and Jon King) to discuss consequences of the guidelines for the community and surrounding laboratories and to consider additional resolutions and actions the city might take to ensure the safety of its citizens. We are planning to use this footage for a new film project on biological safety/risk, so your comments will be very helpful!

Discussion and Feedback

General Discussion

  • No one had previously seen the films; only a few were aware of these hearings.
  • The same questions are still being asked today!
  • Jon King was clearly the most prepared, and was able to appeal to emotions . He made some very convincing statements in contradiction of Mark and Maxine's claims.
  • Mark, in particular, comes off as the arrogant scientist.
  • Interesting that it is not until the moratorium is proposed that Mark highlights the potential beneficial research that could result, instead of just discussing risks.
  • It was asked whether the science/society groups mentioned by Jon King still existed today and in what forms? E.g. Jon Beckwith still runs genetics and society group.
  • Interesting that despite Jon and Ruth's statement, the final decision was actually not particularly rash and fairly rational, especially if you put consider the lay audience's background. Responded to the particular criticisms mounted by jon king - need to have element of local decision making (i.e. local rep on IRBs); need to have better epidemiological screening.
  • Noted by some members that it is clear that self-regulation is not satisfactory, even to them. However, there is a level of technical knowledge required in order to craft meaningful regulations.
  • The local decision making process was highlighted - does this still exist today? Note the BSL4 labs in Boston prompted some of the same local conversations re: NIMBY.
  • Noted that it would be still be very difficult to know how to respond to some of these questions today. Not 100% certain there is no risk; this isn't attainable. We also don't personally have hard numbers re: risk to point to.
  • We now have examples where biotechniques have been used to make dangerous or more dangerous entities (synthesis of polio genome, making mousepox more virulent). Not sure about bacterial examples.
  • One of the city council members made a comment about the scientists bringing the matter to them, rather than vice-versa. There are some interesting parallels with how syn bio has evolved.
  • From the outside, this process doesn't appear democratic at all. The council members appear especially sensitive to those that 'yell the loudest'. Their background , past experience, also clearly colors their responses (e.g. fish in the charles).
  • Q: What might you do differently (in approach, representation)? A1: There is a gap because the scientists don't admit to the risks. Would be better to acknowledge that there are issues and risks, state that we are aware of them, and that we will (or, are trying to) do something about it.
  • Q: Are there polls that gauge the mistrust of scientists by the public?
  • Q: How do we best assure that alarmists do not capture the headlines, or at least are countered by accessible, rational statements?

Feedback on Biosafety Project

We (i.e. Megan Palmer, Drew Endy, Natalie Kuldell and others) are planning to use this archival footage in a new project in biosafety education. The project is designed to inspire and enable the next generation of synthetic biologists to take leadership on issues of personal, public and environmental safety. We have envisioned beginning with a short video using three main elements: (1) historical context (2) contemporary framing and (3) tools and resources. Can you give us feedback as to what from this archival footage, or elsewhere, might be compelling to use in developing tools to teach critical analysis of issues around biosafety?

Reframed: How do you teach, for example, iGEM students about these lessons, about the human element, and guide them to a realization that they have some power to shape decisions. e.g. If we are following an iGEM team we might ask: what happens when your project involves a risk of release ? How could we update these guidelines?

  • Would be interesting to get the scientists involved (e.g. Jon King) to re-read the transcripts (on video) and reflect on how their viewpoint has changed.
  • Hard to choose just a few sections.
  • Would be valuable to contrast iGEM teams' questions around safety.
  • Could contrast testimonies at the PCSBI.
  • A particularly compelling clip is when Mark responds to the moratorium proposal by stating that this will halt research that no-one considers unsafe . How does the line between safe and unsafe get drawn?
  • Ryan: Need to be clear about the purpose - not to convince others that we are safe, but rather to make practitioners sensitive to, and aware of, risks.
  • (MF): Could be useful to have a 'choose your own adventure'-style. e.g. There is this exhibit at the Regan library that I heard about where school kids break into teams and reenact the Grenada invasion. It's electronic, and they can end up making different decisions than what Regan did, although of course for that, Regan's choices are preferred. So for biosafety, there could be an interactive module that works through case studies decision by decision, and for actual events, a comparison could be made between what the students ended up doing and what was actually done. There could also be made up scenarios where the decisions that are made are scored compared to what makes the most 'sense' in terms of existing guidelines, best practices, etc.

2. Bay Area Science Festival

SynBERC is teaming up with the the [Biosciences Institute (EBI)] to present a booth at the November 6th AT&T Park 'Discovery Day' day during the [Bay Area Science Festival]. Danielle Tullman-Ercek and Mike Fisher are heading up efforts, and are looking for both volunteers and ideas for short, fun and low-cost activities to introduce wide audiences to syn bio. Please contact Danielle if you have ideas or would like to be involved!

3. Syn Bio Practices Leadership Bootcamp/Workshop Discussion & Planning


The BioBricks Foundation (BBF) is interested in co-sponsoring a spring/summer intensive 'bootcamp' course designed to teach and engage practitioners in the broader societal context of developments in synthetic biology and foster leadership in advancing responsible practices. 'Graduates' from the bootcamp would be invited to participate in subsequent workshops organized by the BBF focused more narrowly on topics such as IP, Standards, Ethics and Communications.

This evening, we will brainstorm and discuss (1) curriculum components (topics/case studies), (2) formats, and (3) deliverables (white papers etc) for the bootcamp . Our goal is to frame the proposal and divide it into sections we can pursue individually or in small groups. This is a great opportunity for us to work together on a concrete project that will help both us and others start to address the gaps we have explored during our previous meetings.

From your email responses, gaps lists, and previous discussions, I am collecting a growing seed list of ideas for the workshop in the discussion section of the Wiki.

In preparation for the discussion, please:

  • review the discussion section of the Wiki and edit at will.
  • bring your ideas for preferred topics, case studies, invited guests and deliverables (as many as possible, the more non-obvious the better!)

Unfortunately, there was very limited time for discussion of the bootcamp during the meeting. Anyone interested in helping with the project should contact Megan (

A few general comments:

  • A week is a large commitment out of a dissertation, and will necessarily select certain people (which may be desirable). You would get more folks if you did a weekend event. Might consider having a smaller workshop to attract a larger diversity of folks and providing a 'gateway' program.
  • The list of potential curricula topics is so large that it's daunting. Need to spend some time refining the relevant sections. Could navigate through many of these topics through case studies.
  • It was generally thought that an in-residence workshop format could be valuable.
  • Focusing on how to strengthen claims in a broader impact statement (e.g. NSF) was thought to be a good practical bent. Danielle noted that she had been in volved in a grant that was rejected because of a weak broader impact statement, so this has very real consequences.

Additional feedback from the meeting, or sent following, can be found on the discussion page on the Wiki. Please feel free to add any additional comments there.

4. Fall Meeting Schedule

  • Please feel free to invite special guests to speak with the group.
  • We will set up a schedule for the Fall. Thursday at UCSF or Stanford are good for the group.