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Ethics Comes Early in Washington

Bright and early from Washington DC, PCSBI dives into ethical deliberation about synthetic biology. The report from Day 2:


The Duh! Moment: a recent study has found that the public lacks awareness about synthetic biology. Media reporting results in the public having only a cursory understanding of the science.

The European Perspective: unsurprisingly Europeans are much more interested and much more concerned in the potential harms involving synthetic biology. They are already studying the ethics, risks and benefits. Think GMOs.

Perhaps the only real substantive ethics discussion came from AJOB Neuroscience’s own Paul Wolpe who provided an overview on religious perspectives related to synthetic biology as well as four examples of synthetic biology.

Some of his statements were somewhat surprising. Wolpe stated that religious communities are relatively unconcerned about synthetic biology. I have no reason to doubt this claim, but it is certainly surprising.

First Wolpe asked the Commission to consider the ethical notion that “human beings are co-created by technology” and “technologies reciprocally recreate us”. This should fundamentally alter how we think about these technologies.

Wolpe argued that new technologies create new problems that call for new technologies to solve those that then create new problems themselves. In short, technology begets problems which beget new technologies in a never-ending problem-solving and problem-creating technologies. The solution? Who knows. But at least we should be aware of the problem. Thanks, Paul!

Third Wolpe asked: “How do we understand the ethical implications of speed?” Synthetic biology has the capacity to change the evolutionary timeline, speeding up the time of evolutionary change and we have no sense of what impact this may have upon the environment or a whole range of species.

Thus being aware of this, he asks “How to you create a policy of incrementalism?” Paraphrasing Wolpe here: How do you create a policy that allows for reasonable progress along a certain path when you know that at the end of the path is an undesirable result? Again, a great question without an answer. This is for the Commission to figure out.

SUMMARY: Having spoken to numerous commission members this morning, the scientific presentations thus far were far more well-developed and perhaps useful than the ethics presentations. (Not in any way to disparage my ethics colleagues who did excellent job in presenting their views on syn bio.)

As has been argued with nanotechnology (a oft used analogy in the discussions over the last two days), perhaps many believe there isn’t much “there there” in terms of philosophical heavy lifting in regard to synthetic biology. Either this is because many have yet to wrap their minds around the applications and thus implications of synthetic biology for science and society. Perhaps it is because many have not been able to make the distinction that synthetic biology’s lack of exceptionalism does not mean that there are not important ethical issues that require addressing. It simply means that they are the same ones that have been previously addressed in genetic research, human cloning, stem cell research and other well-trodden areas in bioethics research.

What is obvious is that there are significant domestic and international regulatory and oversight challenges in dealing with synthetic biology with which the Commission must grapple. Moreover, the other overarching theme after two days of deliberation is the sensitivity that must be given to religious points of view as regards this issue.

The absolute highlights of the last two days were the questions posed by Chair Amy Gutmann that really went right to the heart of the issue. In the roundtable at the end of yesterday’s session, her charge to all of the participants to “provide a single recommendation to the Commission” really forced clarity of thought and a brevity that really moved the discussion forward. This morning, her question to the ethics panel as to the “single moral value” at stake in synthetic biology again aspired to crystallize the discussion. This ability to propel and clarify the discussion was remarkable.

As Drew Endy put it yesterday, “This is the best discussion on synthetic biology I have attended.” He attributed it to Executive leadership. I would attribute it to commission leadership, the expertise of those who testified and an innovative format for the 2-day meeting itself. If the energy level and creativity of the Commission remains this high, one can only expect it will translate to its report. (Of course whether that translates to Presidential attention, of course, is another story altogether…..)

Summer Johnson, PhD

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