40 years of the Society, Religion and Technology Project

By Mary Anson
9 Dec 2010

Since it was established in 1970 the Church of Scotland’s Society, Religion and Technology (SRT) Project has made a significant contribution not just to the life of one particular church and its capacity to comment on demanding issues in society, but also to public debates about science, technology and ethics generally.

The SRT Project celebrated its 40th anniversary last month by bringing together some of the country’s leading lights in science and religion at Edinburgh’s City Chambers.

In the course of its 40 year active life, the project has engaged with a wide range of issues from genetic modification through to global warming, cloning, energy, environment, nuclear technology, xenotransplantation and stem cell research.

Among the topics discussed at the anniversary event, entitled 'Helping the Church engage with ethical issues in science', and held on 20 November 2010, were the recent ethical controversies surrounding the beginning and end of life, with Professor John Wyatt from University College London.

Dr Heather McHaffie from the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, lead a discussion on why people need plants. Other topics discussed include nanotechnology, astronomy and climate change.

Among the panel members for the conference were the Rev Dr Alistair Donald from Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, and Dr Angeliki Kerasidou from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics.

The Church of Scotland started the project in 1970 to help Christians engage constructively with the scientific community both in Scotland and internationally. Over the 40 years of its existence, SRT has been involved in debate with the governments of the day, industrialists, regulators, faith bodies and the wider public.

Commenting on the anniversary, a Kirk spokesperson declared: "The Church of Scotland has something to say. The church in this country is made up from people with professional expertise in many fields. The Church can call on a wide range of knowledge, expertise and experience from within and be able to harness even a fraction of this strength in depth, and then apply the resulting wisdom, is of great benefit to all.

"There is a variety of views on almost any subject within the Church of Scotland. The ability to honestly engage in a dialogue with those who do not necessarily agree is a fundamental strength of scientific investigation. While this may not result in the 'black and white' answers that many seek, faithful honesty before each other is healthy and useful – progress on breaking down prejudice and misinformation is contingent upon informed debate and discussion."

The SRT's latest report, published at the beginning of November 2010, and available in full here in *.PDF Adobe Acrobat format (http://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/councils/churchsociety/downloads/cssy...), examines the complex issue of Synthetic Biology.

The report's opening summary explains: "Major developments over the last sixty years in the fields of biology, physical sciences and engineering have contributed to the emergence of synthetic biology. Synthetic biology is concerned with artificial or unnatural living organisms or life. Life is a difficult concept, especially as we tend to think in terms of human or sentient life. However, in synthetic biology, life is considered in biochemical terms and is mostly concerned with some of the simplest forms of known life, such as bacteria and viruses.

"All life forms are composed of molecules (e.g. proteins, sugars, DNA, RNA, lipids), which are in themselves non-living. These molecules are referred to in synthetic biology as ‘bioparts’. The biochemical definition of life is that of such bioparts assembled within a physical container (i.e. the bacterial cell wall) which are able to continually regenerate, replicate and evolve.

"Synthetic biology brings together the two disciplines of biology and engineering and is essentially about the redesigning and reassembly of biological systems, in other words redesigning life. The biologist wants to understand living systems better, and the engineer wants to create new things," it posits, before asking: "What is the right relationship between humanity and nature? Does God give us authority to unpick and reconstruct nature in the fundamental way which is at the core of synthetic biology? How far is far enough, and to what extent should our God-given ability to be creative be hemmed in by moral and ethical considerations?

Society, Religion and Technology Project partners and collaborators make it clear that, as in the case of Synthetic Biology, they wish to respond positively and constructively to ethical issues at the forefront of scientific exploration, development and discovery -- rather than to be seen as 'theological police'. Nevertheless they are prepared to raise and debate tough moral and boundary questions. Some of these are posed towards the practice of scientific disciplines in itheir social and economic context, and others to the church itself, which has sometimes been unduly nervous or suspicious of such developments.

In 1999 the Society, Religion and Technology Project was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize (http://www.templetonprize.org/) in recognition of its pioneering work at the interface of ethics and technology.

On the occasion of its 40th anniversary, the SRT Project says of its core purpose: "Technology is changing the face of our society. Often it happens unseen. It’s hard to stand back and grasp the impact of the car, electricity, telephones, TV, computers, the Internet. They’re now part of our life - things we could hardly imagine being without. Yet ethical challenges like cloning and GM food, and environmental impacts like global warming have made us aware of the risks of letting our skills run ahead of our judgement. There is now a recognition that we need to take wider ethical and social values into account in technology. This has been the aim of the Project for almost 40 years."

A short history of SRT has been prepared by Dr John Francis. It can be read and downloaded here (*.PDF Adobe Acrobat format): http://deut.machost.co.uk/images/uploads/SRT_Historical_Booklet.pdf

Church of Scotland Society, Religion and Technology Project website: http://www.srtp.org.uk/

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(c) Mary Anson is a freelance writer on science and society, as well as arts and culture.

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