Dr. Amalia Kallergi and Dr. Laurens Landeweerd – RUN – click for more info

The risks of quantitative risk assessment

Dr. Amalia Kallergi and Dr. Laurens Landeweerd – Radboud University Nijmegen – Institute for Science In Society

Dr. Laurens Landeweerd

Synthetic biology is a diverse practice that poses considerable challenges to risk assessment, policy and legislation due to the novelty and nature of its products. Given the commercial and societal relevance of synthetic biology and the many uncertainties over its risks, scientific efforts concentrate on generating knowledge and technology toward safer synthetic biology applications. Presently, decision-making on the regulation of synthetic biology would appear impeded by a lack of ‘hard’ facts about the risks of synthetic biology applications.

Obviously, research and development must be conducted in a responsible and socially attentive manner. We expect science to contribute to the societal good and to anticipate the impacts of the conducted research. This is a reasonable societal demand necessitated by both historical mishaps and an increased awareness of anthropocentric impact. We also expect science to inform us about and protect us from risks: At the interface between science and policy, a science-based evaluation of risks often precedes decision-making.

Quantitative risk assessment, i.e. the quantification of risk according to the probability and severity of an adverse effect, would appear to satisfy our demands for both responsible research and innovation and informed decision-making. Yet, risk assessment is never simply a matter of objective calculation but a contextualized and value-laden process. What is a (relevant) harm and what is a tolerable threshold of risk depends upon one’s frame of reference, values and socio-cultural context. Besides, synthetic biology painfully reminds us of the limits of calculable risks since harms associated with emergent properties or unexpected mutations are either hard to predict or simply unknown. Synthetic biology is also bound to have broader, non-physical and non-quantifiable impacts such as effects on one’s sense of identity or harms to one’s value system (soft impacts).

Quantitative risk assessment alone cannot satisfy the societal demand for clarity over the acceptability of scientific research and technology innovation. Technologies have a profound effect on the shape of society, and as such, societal values, interests, needs and objections should be taken into account in a broader and more diversified fashion. This includes a deeper and imaginative research into soft impacts such as naturalness, the value of life, just distribution, the layman/expert divide and the institutional role of science. This is not merely necessary for reasons of public legitimation: it is necessary for the intrinsic legitimacy of scientific research and technology innovation. An over-reliance on quantitative risk assessment, on the other hand, may diminish attention to non-quantifiable risks and to the broader context of science and innovation. It may also divert us from the realization that policy-making is a political process to be deliberated directly or indirectly.

Doing responsible research and innovation will requires us –scientists, scholars and policy makers- to resist the “lure” of quantitative risk assessment. It calls for exercises in reflexivity and for moderation in our promises to the society. It demands that we take soft impacts seriously by enriching our investigation with multiple perspectives and by supporting articulation and mutual dialogue. To this end, we need spaces of exchange that are inclusive, non-hierarchical and accessible. We also need creative encounters that challenge us to explicate and scrutinize our own assumptions in a productive, playful and non-didactic manner. None of the above is a trivial task but we have a range of tools, methods and idioms, the artistic idiom included, to support us in this process. Artistic practice and research, in particular, can be a valuable partner to these efforts for its capacity to expose inconsistencies, play with ambiguity, activate the imagination, and materialize novel configurations of matter or ideas.