International Coalition Unveils Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology

Posted by Daniel Sharp March 22, 2012
Biopolitical Times
Last week, a broad international coalition of civil society organizations released the Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology,  a declaration calling for precautionary oversight of the emerging field. Signed by 111 national and international NGOs (including the Center for Genetics and Society), the declaration outlines the principles that should serve as the basis for governance of synthetic biology.

The declaration, spearheaded by Friends of the Earth U.S., International Center for Technology Assessment, and ETC Group, outlines seven principles that should underlie effective, socially just and responsible governance of synthetic biology. These include protecting health and worker safety, requiring corporate accountability, protecting environmental and social justice, and employing the precautionary principle. The declaration also calls for a “ban on using synthetic biology to manipulate the human genome in any form, including the human microbiome.”

Until these principles are fully implemented in a regulatory framework, the organizations call for a moratorium on the environmental release of synthetically-engineered organisms and products.

The declaration has received a good deal of positive media coverage. A prominently featured article in the Washington Post took a supportive tone, quoting Friends of the Earth’s Eric Hoffman. John Sterling, in an article for Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News, wrote:
I believe that synthetic biology brings an entirely new dimension to biotechnology research and that numerous medical and scientific benefits will eventually ensue…. But I also think that until a stronger level of regulatory oversight is established and more scientific knowledge is gained about synbio organisms, any talk of commercialization anytime soon is premature.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), of course, was critical. BIO spokesperson Brent Erickson argued that synthetic biology is simply a relabeling and evolution of biotechnology that's been going on for decades,  and argued that no new safeguards are needed.

Contra BIO, the declaration is not only much needed, but timely. It comes in the wake of a number of developments in policy discussions of synthetic biology.  In December 2010, a disappointingly timid report by President Obama’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues gave the field a green light, arguing that industry self-regulation would be sufficient. Despite this dubious conclusion, the commission did issue 18 recommendations for oversight and governance of the emerging field.

Earlier this year, the Wilson Center, warning of a potential synthetic biology disaster, released a score card revealing that very little progress has been made towards implementing the commission’s already minimal recommendations.  Wilson Center spokesperson Todd Kuiken described his frustration with the utter lack of progress: 

 We approached numerous agencies, including the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which should be coordinating this activity. They gave us nothing. Literally nothing.

 Kuiken also welcomed the new principles for synthetic biology governance, noting that:

the more engaged people are — not just the public, but federal agencies, regulatory agencies and scientists — the better off we are.

At a time when mounting concerns about the potential ecological, security and health risks of the new field have been met with a dearth of governmental action, the global call for a principled approach to synthetic biology governance is an extremely important step in the right direction.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: