Executive Branch Emerging Technology Memo Includes Science Input

On March 11 the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), Office of Management and Budget, and the United States Trade Representative issued this memorandum to executive branch agencies outlining principles for oversight and regulation of emerging technologies.  The three agencies co-chair the White House Emerging Technologies Interagency Policy Coordination Committee, which started last May and consists of assistant-secretary level personnel from 20 different agencies across the government.  The idea is that the memo will help gudie the development of oversight policies for executive branch agencies when dealing with emerging technologies.  There is no mention in the report of the Bioethics Commission’s work on synthetic biology.

The memo outlines some broad principles for agencies to follow.  Details of each can be found in the memo:

  • Scientific Integrity
  • Public Participation
  • Communication
  • Benefits and Cost
  • Flexibility
  • Risk Assessment and Risk Management (pointedly noted as distinct things)
  • Coordination
  • International Cooperation
  • Regulation

While targeted to emerging technologies (the memo lists the usual suspects of nanotechnology, synthetic biology and genetic engineering), much of what is in this memo ought to be studied and borrowed as appropriate when agencies are working on their scientific integrity policies.  I’m disappointed, but not surprised, that some of this material was not part of the official documents released on scientific integrity.  Namely:

“Federal regulation and oversight of emerging technologies should be based on the best available scientific evidence. Adequate information should be sought and developed, and new knowledge should be taken into account when it becomes available. To the extent feasible, purely scientific judgments should be separated from judgments of policy.”

“Decisions should be based on the best reasonably obtainable scientific, technical, economic, and other information, within the boundaries of the authorities and mandates of each agency”

Note the use of should, and the acknowledgment of how other kinds of information and interests can matter in what some might want to be strictly scientific questions.

There are no specific deadlines or obligations placed on executive branch agencies by this memo.  It merely indicates how agencies should approach these technologies as they emerge into areas of their jurisdiction.