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Puttin’ On the Ritz…With the PCSBI

Writing live from the Ritz Carlton Washington DC at the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (PCSBI), here is what I have heard so far….


Two back to back ethics sessions at the first meeting of the PCSBI focused on two very different aspects of synthetic biology–the topic assigned to the commission by President Obama just a few months ago.

Notably, after the morning’s scientific sessions, the first topic was risk and benefit. The session included an evolutionary biologist , an risk assessment advocacy group member, and a bioethicist known for analyzing risk and benefit in human subjects research. Is there some implicit message in putting risk and benefit ahead of ethics on the meeting agenda? Perhaps…or perhaps not.

The commission members ravaged the arguments made by ETC’s Jim Thomas for arguing for a ban on synthetic biology, with the commission’s chair President Amy Gutmann remarking in an almost declaratory statement, “Our democracy does not ban science nor does it permit it.” SPOILER ALERT: I would wager at this point that it is clear that the commission is not going to be advocating a ban on synthetic biological organisms.

Following on the heels of risk and benefit was the discussion of what was defined as “ethics” including testimony from Greg Kaebnick of the Hastings Center and Allen Buchanan of Duke University.

Buchanan described much of the language as “depressingly similar” to the debate used 28 years ago when the “Splicing Life” report was written for the President’s Commission including the language playing. Moreover, Buchanan suggested that perhaps the risks have been over-emphasized to the detriment of ignoring the benefits of this technology.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the commission’s first day of activity is that they tried to accomplish too much too quickly. The first day’s agenda was crammed with scientific sessions, risks and benefits, and ethics as well as a roundtable–all with opportunities (ideally) for public comment. I was astonished when a single questioner was permitted to read aloud a mini-dissertation for five minutes or more consuming all of the public comment time and leaving R. Alta Charo of the FDA standing at the microphone at the close of the public comment period.

The commission’s ambitious agenda shortchanged its most important feature–its emphasis on democratic deliberation and public input. But that is a kink that can be worked out with a shepherd’s crook or a loud cowbell for rambling public member and enforcement by the Chair or Executive Director.

That said, I applaud the commission for its innovative use of video and live streaming of the commission’s events. I hope that they will publish the number of downloads they receive and republish the video on social media websites such as Facebook and YouTube.

Moreover, I have never seen such a turnout for a commission meeting except maybe in the Dolly days. One can only hope that this turnout will continue. If it can be attributed to anything the commission did, I hope it will continue these efforts.

To be continued….

Summer Johnson, PhD

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