About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

In December 2023, we published our latest case of Tech in the Dock, a series where we examine the benefits and risks of emerging technologies to help Nesta’s mission teams anticipate future change.

The verdict is in: the UK should not make a 'big bet' on synthetic biology to tackle climate change. This is the view of both the public jury and Nesta.

We also recognise that we must be prepared for other nations or even private organisations to use synthetic biology at scale. In this verdict, we share why, explore the views of our jury and highlight a handful of issues that the UK government should consider.

The latest Tech in the Dock case explored whether we should use synthetic biology at scale to tackle the climate crisis. The case for its use listed a wide range of potential applications: synthetic algae that produce cleaner industrial chemicals and fuels, modified trees for absorbing more carbon dioxide, and bacteria that repair cracks in buildings to make them last longer.

The case against its use includes unknown environmental and biodiversity effects, questions around the ethics of creating new lifeforms and the possible challenges of global coordination.

Public opinion can strongly influence the development of technology and policy, so we convened a jury of 14 people from across the UK to understand what they thought of synthetic biology for the climate. Our jury was broadly representative of the UK population by gender and ethnicity, with a range of ages, political leanings and knowledge levels about technology.

The two-hour discussion was passionate, with participants highlighting the conflict between the risks of deploying emerging technologies and the urgent need for solutions and actions in the face of the climate crisis. After deliberating, we asked for their verdict on the options in our case. Participants also expressed a preference for approaches that were more ‘natural’, telling us that proposed technological fixes such as synthetic biology feel like a sticking plaster rather than a genuine solution.

Two voted to cut back on investment in synthetic biology, 11 voted to continue to spread our bets across a wide range of approaches and one voted to make a ‘big bet’ on synthetic biology. We can’t say that this result is representative of the broader population, but the views of our jury have been valuable in shaping our ideas for what the government should consider.

Our verdict: should synthetic biology be the next decade’s big bet to tackle climate change?

Nesta’s verdict is that the UK should not make a ‘big bet’ on synthetic biology for the climate. None of the applications we identified are ready to be deployed at the scale required to make a significant contribution to tackling the crisis. Establishing safety and coordinating internationally would take years or even decades, which is time we don’t have. Even with a ‘big bet’ of a magnitude similar to the Covid-19 vaccine effort, it would take many years to know whether synthetic biology could be a transformational option. There would also need to be leaps forward in scaling applications such as biofuels, which would currently require large areas of crop growing space to meet demand.

Our jury’s views were also clear: we don’t yet have the evidence of safety and scalability that we would need to take a ‘big bet’ on synthetic biology. Given the urgency of climate change, our jury felt that we must act with the tools we have available to us now. These are approaches that we know are effective and can be scaled up: reducing consumption, switching to renewable energy, and restoring natural carbon sinks such as forests. Our focus should be on things that work, rather than waiting for new technologies such as synthetic biology, the impact of which are uncertain.

Tomorrow’s policy choices

Although our verdict is not in favour of pursuing the ‘big bet’ pathway, there’s still a compelling case for continuing to research synthetic biology and its applications for addressing climate change. Even if the UK doesn’t plan to depend on this technology for climate action, it should be prepared to respond to how other nations and private organisations deploy the technology.

With that in mind, and drawing on themes from our research, engagement with experts in the field and the views of our jury, we’re keen to see the government explore the following questions.

“Government should lead [the development of synthetic biology for the climate] from an investment and regulatory point of view. If you can create an industry in the UK, then why not?”

Jury member

How might the UK government shape and foster research into synthetic biology to tackle climate change?

Why this is important

The UK government is already supporting the development of synthetic biology. New UK research agency ARIA has identified climate change and synthetic biology as an opportunity, highlighting the importance of ‘programmable plants’ and ‘managing our climate through responsible engineering’.

The government is also supporting strategic development of the sector via its new national vision for engineering biology. The vision lays out support for fundamental research by promising an additional £2 billion of research and development (R&D) funding and providing funding for regulatory sandbox projects to stimulate innovation. This support could be targeted at shaping the technology and its application to climate change toward public benefit ‘upstream’ before new applications are widely deployed.

The experts we spoke to raised the importance of collaboration across different disciplines (from engineers to social scientists) to help ensure technologies target the problems that are most important to citizens in ways they think are appropriate. UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is piloting new models of interdisciplinary funding and there could also be lessons to learn from private sector R&D mechanisms such as the garden grants funding model from Homeworld.bio. This model is seeking to ‘shift the economic gravity’ of funding science toward solving real-world problems in ways that matter to people.

While the UK has great scientific strengths in synthetic biology, it sits alongside global giants such as China and the USA that have substantially more resources and are investing heavily in frontier technologies for tackling climate change. To ensure that the UK adds value to international efforts and carves out a distinct role for itself in the synthetic biology sector, the UK will need to be judicious about how it uses resources and harnesses networks.

Policy directions to explore in future

Disciplinary diversity: encourage disciplinary diversity during peer-review of grants awarded for synthetic biology and climate change. This will better integrate scientific and social science disciplines in a manner that directs research towards tackling social challenges of concern to citizens.

Experimentation with demand-side measures: in a manner similar to targets for electric vehicles sales, the government could look to accelerate progress on socially beneficial applications of synthetic biology through industry targets. These targets would help develop more environmentally friendly biosynthetically-derived products (where these have proven safety).

“When it comes to something like [synthetic biology], it’s going to affect the whole world. It’s not just going to be Britain doing it for Britain.”

Jury member

How can the UK create international safeguards?

Why this is important

Even if the UK doesn’t plan on synthetic biology becoming a lynchpin for climate action on its own soil, other nations, private companies or even wealthy individuals may decide to deploy synthetic biology techniques in other countries. This would have international ramifications. This is a particular risk if, as the world hots up, more radical solutions such as mass CO2 removal or geoengineering are attempted: these applications could have cross-border climate and environmental implications.

Large-scale CO2 removal has been badged as ‘unavoidable’ by the UN IPCC, particularly to mitigate the emissions of ‘hard-to-abate’ industries. However, it’s proving complex and expensive, and there aren’t straightforward answers to difficult questions about how removal should be equitably paid for (without an obvious commercial case to apply tech in this way). The result is that there is not yet a clear government policy on how to make large-scale carbon removal a reality, and a stated government position to remain neutral to the underlying technologies.

Our case also explored how geoengineering – using various techniques to manipulate the earth’s climate systems – could be achieved or enhanced using synthetic biology technology. Whether or not such applications of synthetic biology are pursued in future, the UK and other countries need to be prepared to have sensible conversations about geoengineering with synthetic biology.

Policy directions to explore in future

Convening international players: the UK is well-positioned to play a central convening role on issues of public safety and ethics. In a similar spirit to the 2023 AI Safety Summit at Bletchley Park, the UK government could explore hosting an international summit to discuss the risks, opportunities, and practicalities of using synthetic biology for carbon removal and geoengineering.

Negotiate an international approach: the UK has developed its national vision for engineering biology. Next, there could be scope to develop a complementary international-facing vision, with climate applications taking centre stage, to build on the UK’s strengths.

“We’re accelerating towards a brick wall at a hell of a speed and I think the benefits [of synthetic biology] are going to outweigh some of the risks. We can’t sit and talk about these things for too long.”

Jury member

How might the government better engage citizens in conversations about the safe use of synthetic biology to tackle climate change?

Why this is important

Speaking to citizens about the climate crisis is important, because as a society, we need to urgently make widespread changes to the way we live. Yet recent public conversation on synthetic biology has been limited – which may have reduced the opportunity to build trust and explore options with citizens about the use of this technology to tackle climate change.

Public views on the climate crisis and novel technologies to tackle it are heavily influenced by their trust (or lack thereof) in those making big decisions. When asked how safe they felt synthetic biology was, our jury expressed their lack of trust in government and safety regulators in the wake of the pandemic, the Grenfell tragedy and the recent schools concrete scandal.

The urgency of the climate crisis means that waiting for a public consensus on the right mix of approaches will cause unmanageable delay. Engagement efforts could therefore focus on ensuring that the climate action we must take is done in the most effective and conscientious way possible. These efforts should identify areas where more communication and transparency are needed, and then proactively provide that to citizens. This is important for all climate actions, but even more pressing for synthetic biology because of the complexity of the technology and the history of controversy around genetically modified foods.

Policy directions to explore in future

A dedicated institutional leadership role: in cases where scientific progress threatens to provoke controversy or generate distrust it can be helpful to create a public body with a clear remit to engage the public. In the case of synthetic biology, policymakers could explore identifying an institutional champion on public communication and engagement.

Citizen participation by design: embed citizens into the decision making around new technologies through a model such as a Citizen Participation Service, which would be able to coordinate public engagement across government departments.

Thank you for joining Nesta’s speculative courtroom for our second case of Tech in the Dock. You’ve seen the case, our verdict and that of your jury. We hope the evidence presented informs your views on whether synthetic biology should be the decade's next big bet to tackle climate change.


We worked with Qa Research to recruit 14 people from across the UK to take part in our online jury focus group. Participants were approached on the street to participate and did so in exchange for a financial incentive. Our thanks go to the Qa Research team and all our jury participants.