The Council has launched a call for views and evidence on the ethical issues raised by emerging biotechnologies. By looking at both current examples, such as synthetic biology and nanotechnology, and taking lessons from older cases, such as GM crops and IVF, the Council is interested in the way society and policy makers respond to new biotechnologies and how benefits from these technologies can be secured in an ethically appropriate manner.

The deadline for responses is 15 June 2011.

“Vastly different public responses to biotechnologies can be seen between different countries or cultures,” said Professor Michael Moran of the University of Manchester, who is leading the inquiry. “For example, stem cell research is widely accepted in the UK, while this has been controversial in the US. It is the other way around for GM crops. We want to explore the reasons for this with a view to providing practical guidance for policy makers in future.”

There are a number of common concerns that people have about new biotechnologies. Some, particularly genetic modification and human enhancement technologies, raise concerns about ‘playing God’ and interfering in nature. Others may be controversial due to their potential to impact negatively on the environment or human health.

Policymakers can influence the development of emerging biotechnologies and whether they go on to be available to consumers and patients, for example by setting research priorities and regulatory systems. Over the past few decades, there has been a move to take account of the views of the public in the formation of policy, with the current trend of ‘upstream engagement’ seeking to garner public opinion at the very early stages.

“What principles should decision makers apply to emerging biotechnologies? What tools and levers might they use to secure benefits and minimise the risks? And what role should public engagement activities play? We look forward to receiving views from a wide range of people on these and other important questions,” said Professor Moran.

The Council set up a Working Party in January 2011 to consider the ethical issues raised by emerging biotechnologies. The group, chaired by Professor Moran, includes members with expertise in ethics, law, science, industry and public engagement. In addition to the consultation, the group will hold face-to-face meetings with a range of stakeholders throughout 2011. All contributions will be carefully considered, and a report setting out the Council’s findings will be published in autumn 2012.

Find out more and download the consultation paper