Against the background of the sketched current trends of how science and society meet, ‘bio-objects’ are entities, which can be characterized by three constitutively interconnected features:
They have been isolated from their natural contexts (organs, individual cells and microorganisms, sub-cellular structures) and subjected to further procedures in order to be utilized in medical and life-science contexts (Vermeulen et al. 2012).
Additionally, as products of scientific and technological processes, ‘bio-objects’ share some characteristics with organic structures and thus they seem to belong to the realm of life. But as shown above, they differ fundamentally from other organic entities (‘things’) in the sense that they are also subjects of current—media alerted—public debates, which affirmatively and/or critically accompany the research process in the form of an ethical, legal, social, medial and political discourse.
A further attribute of ‘bio-objects’ is their potential for economization, which is not limited to the monetization or capitalization of ‘bio-objects’ themselves, but may also refer to the use of ‘bio-objects’ in value creation processes more generally, even if this value cannot yet be precisely quantified.
By using such a concept of ‘bio-objects’ we are able to systematically line out and examine the interdependency of these three dimensions concerning all ‘cutting edge biotechnologies’. In concrete terms: the so characterized ‘bio-objects’—not only products of synthetic biology, but also hES or iPS cells-waver between being a scientific and societal ‘benefit’ or ‘risk’.
Reformulating this point with Latour (1993), one of the world’s most important protagonist in the field of science and technology studies, ‘bio-objects’—though not explicitly entitling this concept—seem to take on a life on their own and resist to be subsumed under the category of ‘things’. In their media presence and their provocation of social discourse, products of synthetic biology, stem cells or animal models themselves start acting and thus escape the exclusive control and disposal of the actors who produce them. By developing such an ‘independent existence’, they appear as subjects—or with others words: actants (Latour 2007)—standing alongside classical actors, such as scientists, politicians, patients, etc., in partly cooperative and partly conflicting interactions.
Due to such a resistance of ‘bio-objects’ it is a current “matter of concern” (Latour 2008) that it is not yet clear if they will be perceived as societal risk or benefit. Nevertheless, the outcome will be decisive for the public perception and evaluation both of ‘bio-objects’ themselves and of associated research processes like synthetic biology. The intended and/or expected availability of ‘bio-objects’ for certain purposes—in the fields of medicine, energy generation and storage, ecology, agriculture, food production, etc.—will be constitutive for their public perception, for the flow of financial resources for research and for the attention of the media.
As shown above, it is all the more urgent to conduct a thorough and timely interdisciplinary exploration of ‘bio-objects’, in order to take up the described conceptual challenges. This holds true at least if science and politics wish to identify adequate, sufficiently complex responses and feed them into the public debate. Taken this seriously, it is also a crucial point to scrutinize the ‘evolution’ of the ‘bio-objects’ concerning the interaction between the past and the currently emerging ‘bio-objects’. Therefore, the modeling of this cluster of problems between the poles of ‘nature’, ‘technology’ and ‘society’ represents an urgent research goal, especially since a viable strategy for dealing with these challenges and questions in advance has yet to be developed.
In order to identify, observe and meet these challenges, we propose a three-dimensional matrix that will provide orientation in the so far unexplored world of ‘bio-objects’ (Fig. 1).
The suggested model considers the multi-dimensionality of ‘bio-objects’ and enables the integration of newly appearing ‘bio-objects’, which is an obvious and essential goal posed by the dynamics in biotechnology as well as the exposed societal challenges. The products of plant-based synthetic biology, for example, can scientifically be limited to the application fields of economy and drugs up to now. But as the mentioned example demonstrates, ‘bio-objects’ start shifting through the various dimensions driven by the scientific community, the media or civil-society-organizations. The proposed model enables to uncover the transformation and the shift of ‘bio-objects’ through various dimensions. Finally, this methodological approach allows a retrospective as well as a prospective observation of existing and upcoming ‘bio-objects’ in science, technology and society. Such an prospective observation and understanding is a required necessity in order to deal with the rising societal discontent.
An exploration of the subsequent governance challenges, however, presupposes the exact determination of ‘bio-objects’ with regard to their respectively associated place within the matrix: Concerning synthetic biology it is still completely open along which of the three dimensions (domain, degree of complexity, societal application context) ‘bio-objects’ will be discussed primarily, how they are going to be received and evaluated by society and which effects they will have on the protagonists themselves. In relation to these urgent questions it is also still open wether synthetic biology will be associated with the currently neutral connoted ‘white biotechnology’ or the rather negative connoted ‘green biotechnology’. At this point, the developed matrix provides the possibility to precisely identify the different association possibilities of different actors (scientists, CSOs, media, etc.), the possible disruptions of previous distinctions as well as the combination of both acts as a driver for different measurement possibilities. Based on such an analysis of the possible path- and crossways of the emerging ‘bio-objects’ it is also possible to identify the potential links for a rising societal concern and unease. To be sure, this obviously doesn’t mean that it is possible to determine all crucial points but to calibrate the up- and downstreaming waging between science, technology and society more precisely (Nuffield Council on Bioethics 2012). All this has to be noticed before a new technology is brought into action. It is too late and (on a societal level as well as economically) much too dangerous to wait for the demand of a moratorium until the effectiveness and resistance of ‘bio-objects’ at the interface of science and society is taken seriously.
Therefore, the ethical and societal assessment of synthetic biology is challenged not only to constrain on questions of biosafety and biosecurity but also to face the questions in synthetic biology as an interface problem of science and society triggered by societal concerns and unease. Furthermore, an interdisciplinary discussion on ‘bio-objects’ is among the most urgent desiderata of scientific research in order to trace the emergence of ‘bio-objects’ and the questions and conflicts evoked by them in an adequate way. There will be no ‘exit’ if ‘white biotechnology’ is to be developed successfully.