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December 13, 2019 | Todd Kuiken

Written by: Khara Grieger and Todd Kuiken

As the world’s population increases to an estimated 10 billion people by 2050, pressures on ecosystems and natural resources including air, water, and food production systems, will continue to increase and be exacerbated by climate change.

Many will turn towards new – and potentially disruptive – technologies as a path forward to securing safe and sustainable futures. What role emerging technologies will play (i.e. biotechnologies, nanotechnologies, and geoengineering) in overcoming these grand challenges, however, is an open question and will be debated in the coming years. In 2020, the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity will debate and adopt a post-2020 global biodiversity framework leading towards the 2050 Vision of “Living in harmony with nature“. The International Union for Conservation of Nature will debate a resolution on establishing principles for the evaluation and potential use of synthetic biology and gene drives and its impacts on conservation. In the U.S. 2020 will see a national election which could change the presidency and both houses of Congress.

How should technologies be evaluated? Who should decide whether they should be deployed or developed? Have we learned anything from past experiences with other emerging technologies? Previous case studies have demonstrated the importance of factoring in social and ethical values in research and innovation as well as the need to adapt and adjust risk assessment approaches and frameworks to adequately assess and communicate risk to diverse stakeholders. GES colleagues Grieger and Kuzma, collaborating with other colleagues, recently published a Commentary in Nature Nanotechnology that identified key best practices from the field of nanomaterial risk analysis that could be relevant for other emerging technologies (Nature Nanotechnology article, Behind the Story post).

With this as a background, on December 9th, a symposium was held at the 2019 Annual Meeting of the Society for Risk Analysis, entitled “Risk Analysis of Engineered Nanomaterials: Where Have We Been, Lessons Learned, and Transfer of Knowledge to Other Emerging Technologies,” as a part of the Advanced Materials and Technologies Specialty Group. Five speakers highlighted their own experiences from the field of nanomaterial risk analysis that have helped shape or guide risk analysis efforts of another technologies, including advanced materials (Ede), engineered nanomaterials (Grieger), synthetic biology (Trump, Kuiken), as well as the broader field of emerging technologies used in consumer products, including 3-D printing and wearable technologies (Thomas).

The following is a brief overview of each of these presentations:

This symposium identified and discussed many of the on-going challenges to responsibly develop, innovate, and use several emerging technologies in society. The exemplified best practices and lessons learned from this symposium, among others, should be forefront in international policy debates, public dialogues, including those related to upcoming U.S. national elections, as we continue grapple with the impacts of our society’s many grand challenges including climate change, the role of emerging technologies, and our broader search for solutions.

Khara Grieger and Todd Kuiken are both Senior Research Fellows with the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at NC State University. Dr. Grieger’s work focuses on risk governance of nanotechnologies, and Dr. Kuiken’s on synthetic biology and ecological gene editing.

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