ETC Group warns against "bio-error"

Self-regulation by scientists is not sufficient for a technology that is as potentially disruptive as synthetic biology

By Andrew Leonard
Published January 19, 2007 8:54PM (EST)

On Thursday, M.I.T. assistant professor of synthetic biology Drew Endy responded to my summary of ETC Group's new report "Extreme Genetic Engineering: An Introduction to Synthetic Biology," by calling the report's claim "that synthetic biology research is running forward w/o forethought or societal debate.... impressively inaccurate." I asked ETC Group if it had any comment on Endy's response, and received the following statement this afternoon from Hope Shand, ETC Group's research director.

When ETC Group was preparing its report on synthetic biology, Drew Endy of M.I.T. was consistently open and thoughtful in answering our questions and requests for information. He is a leading proponent of open-source biology and clearly committed to looking at some of the wider societal implications of his field.

But we disagree with the assertion that "synthetic biology is one of the most open, outgoing and self-critical fields of research that's ever existed."

In May 2006 ETC Group joined 38 civil society organizations (CSOs) that signed an open letter to synthetic biologists meeting in Berkeley, Calif. for SynBio 2.0 where proposals for a voluntary code of self-regulation were on the table. The letter from civil society urged the scientists to reject the self-governance approach and called on them to consult more widely -- to participate in a process of open and inclusive oversight. Self-governance is too often designed to pre-empt public debate and avoid government scrutiny. Two members of the ETC Group staff attempted to register for the SynBio 2.0 meeting, but we were told there wasn't enough space.

In December 2006 a leading scientist/entrepreneur in the field of synthetic biology told us that synthetic biology is unique because public discussion on the ethical implications has proceeded research in this field. He gave as an example a December 1999 article in Science, "Ethical Considerations in Synthesizing a Minimal Genome." We don't believe that articles in scientific journals amount to a sufficient public debate on the issues.

Just to be clear, our report doesn't call anyone "irresponsible." But that's not the point. It is not for scientists (no matter how well meaning) to control public discourse or to determine regulatory frameworks. With synthetic biology, it's not just "evildoers" we're worried about. The threat is not just bio-terror -- but "bio-error." And, because the tools of synthetic biology are highly decentralized and its impacts global, we believe governance options must be debated in an international framework.

Whether by deliberate misuse or as a result of unintended consequences, synthetic biology will introduce new and potentially catastrophic societal risks. As we conclude in our report, the debate must go beyond biosecurity and biosafety issues to include discussions about control and ownership of the technology -- and whether it's socially acceptable or desirable.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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