America Needs a Citizens Panel on Ethics & Synthetic Cell Development

NSF logo

“Meeting this challenge requires careful exploration of the social and ethical dimensions of such research”.National Science Foundation

Let’s cut to the chase—following is my list of individuals who could comprise an effective citizens panel on ethics & US synthetic cell development:  Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, Catherine Austin Fitts, Roger Morris, Phyllis Bennis, Barbara Ehrenreich, Arianna Huffington, Alvin Poussaint, Jaron Lanier, Elizabeth Holtzman:

The National Science Board’s quarterly meeting takes place this week—November 28-29—in Alexandria, Virginia.  It is a public one and is being webcast.  The meeting should be of interest to all since there are Big Doings at NSF regarding synthetic cell development.  NSF is currently soliciting preliminary proposals for a program it calls: “Understanding the Rules of Life: Building a Synthetic Cell—An Ideas Lab Activity.”  

It has set a submissions deadline of December 28, 2018 for preliminary proposals.  To see whether you qualify as a proposer, see NSF Program Solicitation (NSF 18-599), linked here

NSF describes its interests this way:

“The ability to design and manufacture synthetic cells has significant implications for the scientific and economic enterprise of the United States.  The synthesis of viable cells from non-living molecules and materials can open the door to the production of functional biomaterials and improved biofuels, large scale chemical synthesis, non-silicon-based computing, novel soil engineering, and medical and pharmaceutical advances, to name just a few possibilities. The study of synthetic cells, and of the processes used in their creation, can also provide a window on the origin and evolution of life on Earth and, potentially, provide insight into extraterrestrial life.”

NSF says the preliminary proposals submitted will be handled by a cross-disciplinary team of NSF program directors.  Plus a panel of external reviewers (likely anonymous) who will advise on selection of proposers and proposals.  

Proposers who make the first cut will participate in an Ideas Lab on synthetic cell development, February 25–March 1, 2019. 

Following the Ideas Lab, another cut takes place.  Applicants passing that screening will be asked to submit a full proposal—by May 13, 2019.  Ultimately, NSF will award $10M in research funds to four to six individuals.

Unlike the way the Lonsdale Origin of Life Challenge was conducted, NSF has indicated that reviewers are being barred from receiving research funding.

However, there are two screeching issues here.  One, unfortunately, is the very nature of the NSF itself—which science and technology historian David F. Noble described to me this way:  

DAVID F. NOBLE (1945-2010)

“By about 1943-44, there was a discussion about what the postwar scientific establishment would look like. . . .Vannevar Bush and his friends put together a counterproposal calling for a “National Research Foundation”—which became more or less what we have in today’s National Science Foundation.

The Vannevar Bush et al. legislation said essentially that science would be funded by the taxpayer but controlled by scientists.  Again, scientists—this is important to emphasize—are not simply scientists, but scientists and the corporations they work for.”

The other issue is, of course, the ethics of synthetic cell development.  NSF says it cares about the “social and ethical dimensions of such research.”  So who gets to say what synthetic cell research meets society’s approval?

 I think creating a responsible US citizens panel is urgent.

Eberhard Bodenschatz, a physicist and director of Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization in Gottingen, Germany, outlined his country’s approach on ethics and synthetic cell development at an NSF synthetic cell meeting earlier this year.

Eberhard Bodenschatz

Bodenschatz noted that a dialogue with the public is critical and announced that Peter Dabrock, a theologian who sits on the Ethics Council of the German government, will oversee challenges at the interface of science and society there. 

Obviously, the German model can never work in America since we have a constitutional wall between church and state.  

As of now, the NSF plan is to “educate” the American people about synthetic cell development after selections are quietly made by insiders who we don’t know. This approach cannot remain unchallenged. We need a citizens panel. Further, David F. Noble’s comments regarding the very nature of the National Science Foundation also need urgent public attention.








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