Alfred P Sloan Foundation funds studies on societal issues of synthetic biology

13 January 2009

The Alfred P Sloan Foundation has launched a new initiative to study the societal issues associated with synthetic biology — a rapidly developing scientific field where researchers are constructing novel organisms from the building blocks of DNA.

The intitiave will bring together leading scientists, ethicists and public policy specialists to explore the field's potential benefits and risks, as well as ethical questions and regulatory issues.

The Foundation has awarded three grants totaling more than US$1.6 million to The Hastings Center, the J Craig Venter Institute, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

"The Foundation has a long and rich tradition of funding scientific research," said Dr. Paul Joskow, President Alfred P Sloan Foundation. "With synthetic biology, scientists have gone from reading to writing the genetic code; it's imperative that we take a carefully reasoned and systematic approach to understanding the full spectrum of ethical and policy issues that may arise as research and applications in this field develop."

At the New York-based Hastings Center, Foundation funding will allow for in-depth investigation into ethical issues that may arise in connection with developments in synthetic biology. The project aims to make serious contributions to scholarly literature, produce a base for further scholarship, and inform public policymaking.

The J Craig Venter Institute will examine potential societal concerns associated with developments in synthetic genomics. The project will both inform the scientific community about these issues while also educating the policy and journalistic communities about the science. As a result, scientists, journalists and policymakers will be able to engage in informed discussions.

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars will analyze evolving public perceptions of potential societal risks that may arise related to research in and applications of synthetic biology, clarify whether our existing regulatory systems can address relevant risks that may be associated with the science, and inform and educate policymakers.

"This program builds on the Foundation's biosecurity work and will establish a community of scientists, ethicists and policy specialists who can work synergistically on these issues," said Paula Olsiewski, Program Director, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. "Ethical and policy discussions must be informed by the realities of the science and similarly the science must take into consideration societal concerns so that synthetic biology can be applied both inventively and wisely."

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