“Life, uh, finds a way.”

The iconic line delivered by Jeff Goldblum’s character, Dr. Ian Malcolm, in the 1993 film “Jurassic Park” may soon apply to two new projects aiming to develop synthetic cells. The work will be “testing the boundaries of life as we know it,” the National Science Foundation states.

Harthorn and other researchers will provide a societal perspective on the National Science Foundation projects to construct synthetic neurons and synthetic functional, lipid-free cells. / Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Both funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), one project seeks to construct a synthetic neuron and programmable neuronal network and will be in development for the next four years. The other project, known as ProteoCell, will run for the next three years and has a goal to build functional, lipid-free, “living” cells with proteins. These are under one of the NSF’s long-term research priorities, Understanding the Rules of Life: Building a Synthetic Cell.

With ambitious goals such as these, many questions can emerge, including the societal significance of synthetic cells as well as the potential benefits, risks and possibilities they bring.

That’s where Barbara Harthorn, a UCSB professor of anthropology, comes in.

Along with her collaborators, Harthorn is providing a sociological and ethical perspective on the projects. They will focus on the public’s views — their beliefs, attitudes, values and concerns — on synthetic biology as well as its societal implications, including how people make sense of the novel technologies involved in the work. Currently, the technologies have very low awareness in the United States, according to Harthorn.

“We’re really trying to generate new knowledge about emergent public views about the risks and benefits of these kinds of new synthetic technologies,” Harthorn said.

She and the other researchers will share this information with the scientists and engineers developing these synthetic projects, the government funding the work and the public and policymakers. “Our aim is to gain information and share it,” Harthorn said.

From an ethical standpoint, the public should be informed about technological developments to enable public participation, according to Harthorn. This may hold especially true in this context since these are publicly-funded research projects with potentially public ramifications. Under the principle of informed consent, people should be informed and “have an opportunity to give or not [give] their consent.”

“If there are risks and hazards that emerge in the course of developing these new devices and technologies, then you really need knowledge about public views in order to do ethical and possible research,” Harthorn said. “Meaning that you have to tailor that kind of creation provision to empirical data on different sectors or samples of the population.”

Doing so requires social science research and is a component of responsible communication. For these projects, Harthorn will work to increase inclusion in responsible research and innovation and thus indirectly increase public participation.

“Part of that is because involving the public and engaging in transparent communication with the public about what’s happening and how it might affect them is probably the only way to gain trust with the government and the industries,” she said.

Having served as the director of the NSF Center for Nanotechnology in Society at UCSB (CNS-UCSB) for 11 years, Harthorn has plenty of experience in this line of work. She led a research team in conducting a study on risk perceptions regarding nanotechnologies for energy and health purposes from multiple parties — including the public, various experts, regulators, industries and NGOs in the United States and abroad.

While Harthorn has dealt with studying complex technologies before, these new projects involving synthetic biology technologies will bring some different challenges. For instance, there is even lower public awareness of these technologies than of nanotechnology, she stated.

To aid herself, Harthorn will employ both the methods and the knowledge from her previous CNS project to embark on these newer ones.

The main research method she and her collaborators have been developing across the series of research projects is public deliberation. With it, they can engage the public under low-awareness conditions. They can also engage the public in a certain two-way dialogue that’s focused on sharing enough information about the kinds of technologies that might be used. This can enable people to “form their own view based on their own experiences, gender, race and ethnicity, their employment, etc.,” Harthorn described.

Harthorn’s overarching goal is to convey the societal ramifications of these technologies and help people gain an understanding of how they might be used in terms of balancing risk with benefits.

Harthorn and her team are currently gearing up for their first year of public deliberation research, including developing the surveys that they will use for next year’s work.

One exciting component of these new projects for Harthorn is to work with UCSB students.

“Usually in the past, I’ve had postdoc researchers on this, but in this project, we’re working with graduate student researchers here at UCSB. I’m looking forward to that. And there may be opportunities for undergrads to work as interns in this project.”

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