October 16, 2007

Syns of Omission

Civil Society Organizations Respond to Report on Synthetic Biology Governance from the J. Craig Venter Institute and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

A report on policy options for governance of synthetic biology is a disappointing effort that fails to address wider societal concerns about the rapid deployment of a powerful and controversial new technology. Synthetic biology aims to commercialize new biological parts, devices and living organisms that are constructed from synthetic DNA - including dangerous pathogens. Synthetic biologists are attempting to harness cells as tiny factories for industrial production of chemicals, including pharmaceuticals and fuels. ETC Group describes the synthetic biology approach as "extreme genetic engineering."

The report, authored by scientists and employees from the J. Craig Venter Institute, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Center for Strategic & International Studies (Washington, D.C.) was funded by a half-million dollar grant from the U.S.-based Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and billed as a "project to examine the societal implications of synthetic genomics."1 The study was more than two years in the making, but the report makes no policy recommendations and failed to properly consult civil society. While the authors do acknowledge possible bio-error (i.e., synbio accidents that cause unintended harm to human health and the environment), the emphasis is on how to impede bioterrorists "in a post-September 11 world."

"This report is a partial consideration of governance by a partisan group of authors," explains Jim Thomas of ETC Group. "Its authors are 'Synthusiasts' - or, unabashed synthetic biology boosters - who are primarily concerned about holding down costs and regulatory burdens that could allegedly stymie the rapid development of the new industry. By focusing narrowly on safety and security in a U.S.-centric context, the report conveniently overlooks important questions related to power, control and the economic impacts of synthetic biology. The authors have ignored the first and most basic questions: Is synthetic biology socially acceptable or desirable? Who should decide? Who will control the technology, and what are its potential impacts?"


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