Synthetic Biology Policy Gets Dismal Score Card

Posted by Daniel Sharp March 6, 2012
Biopolitical Times
In 2010, the President’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues convened a series of hearings to explore the risks, benefits and potential applications of synthetic biology.  The most important byproduct of this review, a sizable report titled New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies, contained 18 broad recommendations for government policy on synthetic biology, covering issues from regulation and oversight to education and investment.

More than a year later, it’s time to ask the simple question: What progress has been made in regulating this powerful emerging technology?

Luckily for the concerned public, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars unveiled a Score Card that monitors the implementation of the recommendations.  Unluckily for all of us, they found little to no progress in regulating the industry.  

The Score Card is, frankly, embarrassing – the equivalent of taking an all “D’s” and “F’s” high-school report card home to your parents. Strikingly, not a single one of the commission’s 18 recommendations has been marked as “fulfilled,” even though seven have fast-approaching deadlines. Seven of the recommendations have prompted no federal activity whatsoever, while many of the rest have met lackluster effort.

Some of the failures are particularly disconcerting. For example, the fairly simple and obvious recommendation that “reasonable risk assessments should be carried out prior to field release of research organisms or commercial products involving synthetic biology technology” has seen no effort at all.  Other failures are just outright puzzling. Despite the millions of federal dollars pumped into synthetic biology since 2006, for example, no coordinated public evaluation of synthetic biology funding has taken place.

The sluggish pace of implementation is made all the more troubling by criticisms that the Commission’s recommendations were simple and shallow in the first place. Capturing these sentiments, Rutgers University molecular biologist Richard Ebrigh described the recommendations as “very thin gruel” and “fundamentally empty.” Similarly, in an open letter to the President’s Commission, 58 civil society organizations (including the Center for Genetics and Society) argued that the Commission’s recommendations constituted an:
inadequate response to the risks posed by synthetic biology” because they 1) ignore the precautionary principle, 2) lack adequate concern for the environmental risks of synthetic biology, 3) rely on the use of “suicide genes” and other technologies that provide no guarantee of environmental safety, and 4) rely on “self regulation,” which means no real regulation or oversight of synthetic biology.

The Wilson Center’s synthetic biology evaluation aims “to encourage broad participation in achieving the goals set forth by the Commission.” One can only hope that it works. 

 Previously on Biopolitical Times: