Synthetic biology (SB) applies engineering principles to biology for the construction of novel biological systems designed for useful purposes. From an oversight perspective, SB products come with significant uncertainty. Yet there is a need to anticipate and prepare for SB applications before deployment. This study develops a Societal Risk Evaluation Scheme (SRES) in order to advance methods for anticipatory governance of emerging technologies such as SB.
The SRES is based upon societal risk factors that were identified as important through a policy Delphi study. These factors range from those associated with traditional risk assessment, such as health and environmental consequences, to broader features of risk such as those associated with reversibility, manageability, anticipated levels of public concern, and uncertainty.
A multi-disciplinary panel with diverse perspectives and affiliations assessed four case studies of SB using the SRES. Rankings of the SRES components are compared within and across the case studies. From these comparisons, we found levels of controllability and familiarity associated with the cases to be important for overall SRES rankings. From a theoretical standpoint, this study illustrates the applicability of the psychometric paradigm to evaluating SB cases.
In addition, our paper describes how the SRES can be incorporated into anticipatory governance models as a screening tool to prioritize research, information collection, and dialogue in the face of the limited capacity of governance systems. To our knowledge, this is the first study to elicit data on specific cases of SB with the goal of developing theory and tools for risk governance.