During the introduction to each case by the moderator, discussants were explained what aims scientists strive for with certain technologies such as (1) developments of malaria drugs, (2) reduction of insect populations and (3) bio-fuel. Overall, discussants initially expressed limited knowledge on these cases and therefore debated on the basis of the given information as well as former experiences they collected from other fields such as science and media. Besides critical attitudes, the discussants also randomly referred to these possible benefits of SB. Benefits for medical applications were comparably far more often addressed than the others. 45 sections where discussants referred to drug applications were coded, in comparison to 16 in the field of bio-fuel and only six within the field insect population control.
The participants described the necessity for novel and widely accessible anti-malaria drugs, sustainable bio-fuels from renewable resources and the need for optimising the food production. It was mostly debated how and whether these new approaches and techniques would lead to the anticipated aims. Those groups whose members had higher educational levels referred much more often to benefits of research in comparison to those people with a lower educational level. With the latter, drawbacks were given higher priority in the discussions.
However, with all groups, benefits were almost always negotiated along with anticipated risks and ‘negative implications’. These imagined drawbacks often included wide impacts such as environmental hazards or noxious side effects. The participants also referred to the usage of certain practices, which they considered as being morally wrong, as for instance the unavailability of drugs for certain population groups or the monopolisation of financial gains. A general understanding of the necessity of research was however given during the group discussions, albeit being paired with a critical stance and an awareness for alternative approaches.
In particular with the topics synthetic algae (coded 33 times) and synthetic viruses (coded 17 times), people questioned the necessity of SB for achieving certain benefits. Solely when people referred to drug applications this discourse was not prevalent (coded 6 times). The groups typically found consensus on a certain problem like increasing fuel demands but at the same time questioned whether high risk technologies were the preferable solution. On account of this, people discussed how renewable energy sources, mixed crop cultivation or abstemious lifestyles might be better solutions.
The following example 1 demonstrates how groups typically negotiated benefits and associated risks.
Example 1: Erlangen, 18–35 years old, higher education level
T4: Malaria is indeed a huge problem in Africa and South-Asia (…) therefore I find this research very important, essential (…). You cannot discuss it ethically because there are no embryonic stem cells in use.
T1: This sounds promising, however, I would be careful to legitimate this kind of research with solutions to social and medical issues in developing countries (…) because I do not see the problem with the amount of malaria drugs (…), but with the distribution.
T7: But how do you want to fight malaria? I mean you have to develop a drug (…).
T1: True, I would agree but I think there are already enough drugs for malaria. The problem is that those people who really need them often lack access due to patents, due to economic dependencies.
T8: Of course not, but with a delay of the typical 20 years indeed. This is of course a long time (…), but the hope is that it helps those people in 20 years.
T3: Maybe! For me it matters how these drugs get used (…). It would be a pity if it, again, would be intended for Europeans only.
T5: I cannot imagine that those who do research on this drug think about helping the 3rd World. I think that they do research for earning money.
The selected unit starts with the framing of malaria as a serious problem in Southern parts of the world and the conclusion that research should be conducted. It is followed by a justification that this sort of research is ethically valid in comparison to other approaches like stem cell research. The next argument stresses suspiciousness and the reassessing of the necessity of this approach (merely a distribution issue). Right afterwards benefits (medication) are brought up again as a supportive argument for this sort of research. The response condenses the argument of distribution to questions of access and monopolisation. Another respondent acknowledges the criticism but directly addresses the long term redemption. The statement is followed by another argument that criticises the uneven global distribution. The unit then closes with questioning the integrity of those people who conduct research and their intentions for the common good.
This first example shows how single topics were interwoven and negotiated along other issues. Questions of benefits were strongly linked to distribution and its governance. The next section will address these questions in more detail.
Discourse addressing commercial interests and monopolies was randomly present during the focus group sessions. Most groups found consensus on the issue that the output of this sort of research promise great economic value and therefore wondered about how gains and benefits were distributed. The participants debated the role of corporations and Western societies and how these entities capitalise power and resources. Many discussants expressed the feeling that there is invisible correlation between having the lead with science and its research programs and results of research and an economic reasoning, which is embedded as an important but in transparent driver of research.
The dominant discourse on distribution was not directed towards rejecting biotechnologies, but towards creating the awareness of doing things “the right way”. The respective examples used were either companies or corporations that capitalise financial gains from drug or fuel production, or the “West” taking advantage of the “Global South”.
Even though the subject matter of just distribution was indeed a topic of great relevance to all groups, there were large differences between the different areas of SB-application. Codes that address distribution, monopolisation, or patenting issues were coded 53 times with the case of synthetic fungus/drug, and comparably much less frequently with algae/bio-fuel (23 times) or virus/agriculture (12 times). However, it must be considered, that this imbalance was also triggered by the usage of a case that included malaria, a disease, which typically occurs in Southern countries and therefore enhanced discussions about global justice.
Another noticeable difference was demonstrated by the educational level of the groups. Whereas those groups with discussants with higher education reflected more on global distributional justice, fairness and monopolisation in general, the lower-educated groups did oppose economic interests of corporations more often. The groups with higher education typically prone to ask if certain groups (e.g. Global South) were excluded from research benefits.
The strong discourse on a democratisation of risks and benefits showed how research and its products were associated with wider consequences and impacts.
Systemic and process-oriented understandings
Regardless if the groups discussed benefits, distribution or other related risks, a sensitiveness to interrelations and consequences could be observed. It could be seen that risks were in many cases not directly addressed in an essentialist way towards the products of science itself (such as a synthetic drug or synthetic virus) but rather to its anticipated impacts and indirect implications on existing systems. Influencing or controlling possible impacts was mostly debated on the level of expert-regulation and technical or legal solutions.
In the case of synthetic fungus/drug, the participants discussed how a synthetic drug may have (no) implications on Southern parts of the world or unknown long-term implications on patients. Both issues address indirect consequences and wider impacts. However, within this example, the participants agreed that all options for controlling science and its products via tests and clinical trials should be exploited. Possibilities for control were mainly anticipated by those groups with higher education, whereas those groups with lower education did only seldom debate possibilities for control and containment. With both other examples, and in particular with the case of virus/agriculture, the discussants were less optimistic about possibilities for control.
The case of algae/bio-fuel typically triggered a discourse on environmental impacts and the disruptions of system balances. Likewise to the first case, the groups seldom associated hazards with a synthetically created alga itself, but with the wider impacts it might have. Subsequently, in the participants’ view its release might disturb the natural system, which is considered as being in balance. The actual imagined impacts ranged from the replacement of other species of algae to environmental hazards or indirect impacts on humans if algae find their way into the food chain—either as a dish or via seafood that was exposed to it. In addition it was assumed that a synthetic alga may be subject to evolutionary processes. The prevalent option of containment was considered as a containment of algae in closed tanks.
The case of virus/agriculture was debated with the highest level of anxiety. Concerns about the unleashing and irreversible consequences were dominant during the discussions. These concerns were even strengthened by the shared understanding that a virus may always mutate, even if designed to stay stable. People thereby referred to examples from the media, such as movies on epidemics, as well as to knowledge about flu viruses that alter each year. The anticipated impacts ranged from invasive effects on humans to environmental hazards and disruptions of insect populations. All groups spotted limited options for controlling or containing a synthetically created virus.
The products of emerging biotechnologies were discursively processed in a systemic understanding of nature, science and technology, rather than on the base of their ontological status. The groups thereby followed a causal rather than an essentialist approach. This means that the causes and effects, and in particular the indirect ones, gained most attention in the groups’ discussions, rather than the objects themselves in their constitution and existence. Special unease could be noted regarding the idea that the hybrid objects of science get unleashed and embedded into the world. The following example 2 demonstrates how the case of a virus triggered particular concerns in relation to a drug based on synthetic ingredients.
Example 2, Vienna, 18–35 years old, lower educational level
T1: You cannot make tests in the outside world. You cannot say how warm it is, how much wind there is, how fast it will spread.
T3: I understand, (…) there are other conditions out there, but I do not think that they are fully controllable.
T5: But I think that drugs, I mean, there is a human attached, the consumer. (…) but what is outside cannot be influenced completely, cannot be controlled. And yes, the drug is by then finished, a finished product.
T2: If the drug is harmful to the human body, you can withdraw it, yes? But if I unleash a virus out in the nature, what can I do then? I cannot tell him, “come back to the lab, I made a mistake”. It is then out there and reproduces and spreads. You must activate instruments against this, but those are possibly not applicable. I think about a movie called ‘the deadly virus’.
T5: Because a virus can alter.
T2: Right, it mutates and mutates on and they have found a cure, but it is the wrong one, and, humans die like flies [laughing]. If I imagine it in a corn field and I consume bread and get something, what do I know? And doctors have only limited knowledge; they do not know what I am ill from (…). A virus is too unpredictable.
T6: Yes, as long as diseases like HIV are not completely explored, one should be careful with a virus. Because HIV is an example that viruses are unpredictable.
The section starts with claiming that tests cannot be made in the outside world because the conditions are not stable. This thought is followed by the perception that drugs cannot be controlled. T5 in turn stresses that a drug is much closer in relation to a virus that is “out there”. This leads to the conclusion that the latter cannot be controlled, whereas a drug is an isolated product. This argumentation supports the first statement. Another participant jumps on the bandwagon and agrees that a drug might be withdrawn from the market, whereas an unleashed virus cannot. This statement is backed up by some media content. T5 sharpens the discourse by referring to the possibility of alteration—T2 directly supports this argumentation and continues to link it with media examples. This leads to the conclusion that even experts may not be able to help and understand the issue, as it is unpredictable. The last argument refers to the lack of fully understanding HIV.
This short example shows how a group of people finds a consensus about a synthetic virus for agricultural purposes and labels it as being uncontrollable. The described discussion represents a typical example of the limited divergent opinions within this specific discourse and displays that this perception was shared among the discussants. However, even though this example indicated serious concerns, there were still benefits expected concerning SB that were balanced with the anticipated risks during the discussion.