Synthetic Biology Management Continues to Take Baby Steps

Fifteen months after the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues released its report on synthetic biology governance, and many recommendations have yet to be addressed.  At least that’s the assessment of the Woodrow Wilson International Center’s Synthetic Biology Project.  According to its scorecard, only eleven of the 18 recommendations have seen any federal activity.  With many of the recommendations connected to a June 2012 deadline, this scorecard should help track the slippage or meeting of that deadline and any subsequent deadlines.  There are other initiatives in the Synthetic Biology Project worth following, including this new survey on the Societal Impacts of Synthetic Biology.  The Project is asking you to complete the survey, which is a prioritizing exercise for actions to address societal issues in synthetic biology.

For some groups, the only action right now is to stop.  Per ScienceInsider, over one hundred groups have called for operating much more cautiously on synthetic biology.  In a new report, the coalition (which contains many groups that objected to the Bioethics Commission’s recommendations) outlines a precautionary regulatory strategy for synthetic biology, in contrast to the encouragement of self-governance inherent in the approach of the Bioethics Commission.  As you might expect, the industry representatives connected to synthetic biology were resistant to the recommendations of the report.

“Brent Erickson from the Washington, D.C.-based Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) calls the report absurd. “[With] the shrillness of its tone and its lack of objectivity, I don’t’ think it’s really helpful to policy-makers and the public.” He points out that synthetic biology is in many ways a relabeling and evolution of biotechnology that’s been going on for decades.”

Not that Mr. Erickson’s rhetoric is without issues of tone or objectivity, but his point about how synthetic biology relates to biotechnology is very relevant.  Not that it should be assumed that biotechnology has always done the right things for effective governance of new technologies.  But we are not operating in such a vacuum that the traditional precautionary principle (summarized as ‘prove a lack of risk before pursuing action’) is as useful as it might be in other situations.