Marina Voronova-Abrams

Program Associate, Global Green USA

Synthetic Biology: Perceptions of the Environmental and Security Communities

Speaking at the meeting “Synthetic Biology: New or Existing Risk? Impressions of the Presidential Commission on the Study of Bioethical Issues Synthetic Biology Recommendations,” organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

February 11, 2011

My mission is to discuss the perceptions of the Presidential Commission’s report by the environmental and security communities. Just upfront I want to say that when I speak of environmental community – I primarily mean the NGO sector, activists, and grassroots organizations. Today we have a few representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency and I believe they could speak for themselves during the discussion.

The two communities have quite different threat perceptions. And because of these differences in threat perception, environmentalists and security experts have reacted differently to the Report.

Environmentalists see the threat in the synthetically designed organisms themselves. They fear that once in the environment or in the human body, these organisms are difficult or even impossible to control and that God only knows how much harm they might cause.

Therefore their reaction to the report has been quite negative and they have been very vocal about it. A group of 58 national and international organizations actually wrote an open letter to the Commission stating that its recommendations are 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

4.) Rely on “self-regulation,” meaning no regulation or oversight of synthetic biology

5.) Their logic is that, yes, the field is relatively young, but billions of dollars already go into developing it. And as more investment goes into synthetic biology, the stakes grow higher, their lobbying forces strengthen, and once we have this train running full speed it will be very difficult to stop and change anything.

My personal observations are that the environmental community had very high hopes and expectations from the Commission. They view this report as something that sets the agenda, provides the foundation for future developments and also sends a very powerful message not only within the U.S., but also internationally. In the letter, they sound as if they perceive the Commission as some sort of regulatory body itself, designed to come up with new, very strong regulations.

Part of their anger comes from environmentalists’ general frustration with existing regulations and laws that are supposed to apply to emerging technologies but currently fail to contain the possible risks of synthetic biology, and emerging technologies in general. That is why they find the report’s language vague and fear that these agencies will not do a good job of strengthening or improving their regulations, which is what the Commission in fact recommends.

They basically ask for a moratorium on the release and commercial use of synthetic organisms until a thorough study of all the environmental and socio-economic impacts of this emerging technology has taken place. According to them, the precautionary principle does not derail progress, in other words, it is not anti-science or anti-technology. It simply affords us the time we need to ensure that we progress in socially, economically, and environmentally prudent ways.

The environmentalists also felt that ecologists were not engaged enough in the process, and were not given an equal presence during the Commission’s hearings in relation to the number of scientists, who have their own professional biases, and industry representatives whose chief concern is profitability.

The security community perceives the threat from a different angle. They see danger in the human beings (state or non-state actors) who might use synthetically produced organisms to cause harm.

The security experts come from different fields: science, policy, public health, and pure security. And, as a community, it relies on expertise from other sectors. They also are very much tied to the policy implementation world and economics of different industries. They will always look at any recommendations from the standpoint of feasibility (whether it is doable or not) and with sensitivity to potential disadvantages for any stakeholders; budget and financial issues also play a huge role here. The security community does not demand any moratorium on emerging technologies because of potential advantages of synthetic biology to national security: development of new medical countermeasures, detection and protection devices, and decontamination methods.

As a result of all these factors, the security community has found the Commission’s recommendations adequate and flexible enough in terms of policy implementation and national security. They also see this report as a continuation of the debate over dual-use research in general, and the report echoes to some extent numerous workshops and meetings on this topic over the last 3-4 years.

The security community does acknowledge the unpredictability of synthetic agents’ biological properties, and the potential misuse of these agents by scientists or by such amateur groups as “Do-It-Yourself Biology.” But at the same time they advocate the improvement of already existing oversight mechanisms and safeguards, rather than additional bureaucracy.

In general, I have not noticed any strong objections to the Commission’s recommendations among members of the security community. And if there are any, I guess, we will hear them today. The only hints of negativity I saw in the press seemed to be the result of misinterpretations of the facts and therefore seemed to be unreliable. Some of them went as far as calling the recommendations “federal guidance on the ethics of synthetic biology.”

My recommendation to both communities would be to work together more closely, meet and discuss each other’s concerns, and hopefully find common ground and mutual understanding if not on all, then at least on some of the points. This would ease the policymakers’ decision-making process and facilitate the adoption or adjustment of any future regulations.

The question I would like to raise for the discussion today, and something that was not mentioned in the report, is whether these recommendations will have any effect on debate within the Biological Weapons Convention.  The 7th Review Conference is coming this year and, certainly, synthetic biology adds to the evolving character of the biological threat and makes the task of using life sciences for peaceful purposes only more difficult.