#11 Fashion Faith & Fantasy in synthetic biology: an introduction
We are running an event with 3 sessions under the theme Fashion, Faith & Fantasy in synthetic biology. The first session in (September) introduced the idea behind the theme, namely, the role of mental models used by synthetic biology researchers, aspirants, policy makers and general public to understand and shape the course of synthetic biology as a field. The second event, scheduled next Tuesday (October) is a panel discussion, where we would like to discuss relevant questions based on our first event and an online survey. The third event in (November) involves group activities (fun games – sell your product , pub quiz, speed dating) highlighting some aspects of these mental models while working in synthetic biology. Below are the issues that were discussed in the previous session:
1. Appeal: Many students may get attracted to the field of synthetic biology for wrong reasons, because of the way media portrays it. This results in a) the students getting disappointed, because their aspirations are not matched with the philosophy/ status of the field , and b) the field does not benefit optimally from the students. How can we sell synthetic biology more appropriately for what it actually is?
2. Trends: Trends in a field leads to resources getting allocated to a particular area more than others. This leads to a crippled progress rather than a holistic growth. Crippled progress is not optimal for both the field and the society, as excessive growth in only one area can be detrimental. Can we even do something about this trending effect?
1. Assumptions: Synthetic biology is at the cusp of science and engineering, moving more towards engineering. To operate as an engineering field, the assumptions about the parts used for building a device must be minimal, but it is rarely the case in synthetic biology, compared to electronic engineering or computer engineering. This is mainly due to the fact that there are so many unknowns in biological systems and they have significant influence on any device we would like to build (living organisms are “COMPLEX” systems). Because of which any synthetic biology endeavour feels more like a scientific enterprise (characterising a system – testing all the assumptions) rather than an engineering enterprise (building complex system without caring much about the details of the parts). How can we operate as an engineering field with more faith in the current ( incomplete) knowledge of biology?
2. Biases and heuristics: Synthetic biology is an interdisciplinary science allowing scientists with diverse background to contribute. This diversity is a great strength of the field. However it is very difficult to be aware of ones biases and the way it affects the way research progresses due to wrong interpretations. Heuristics of researchers working across discipline can blind them to certain aspects of reality, due to their preconceived notions, but at the same time these errors and mistakes can be raw material for creativity. How to identify the biases, and are heuristics good or bad?
The more confidence we attain in some of our basic assumptions (strong faith), due to its applicability in multiple scenarios, its reproducibility, and its use by many people (fashion and trend), it gets more difficult to break free of it. Given that it is essential to break free of these dogmas to discover revolutionary ideas, what are the ways we can imagine new models and what are the roadblocks?