April 18th 2011
Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues - Synthetic Biology Report & Response
Megan Palmer & Monica Ortiz
Monica and Megan lead the group through an introduction to the Bioethics Commission, its aims, and events leading up to their being asked to examine synthetic biology. They briefly summarized the report recommendations, its proposed set of five basic ethical principles for assessing emerging technologies and some of the new terminology used in the report including 'prudent vigilance' and 'regulatory parsimony'. The public reactions to the report were also highlighted, noting the perceived biases from the authors and organizations.
The group struggled to parse differences between prudent vigilance and precautionary approaches to the regulation of emerging technologies, and determine their practical implications for their individual work. This discussion raised questions as to how much should be expected of a researcher in terms of their ability to evaluate the societal ramifications of their work, and their responsibility to take into account these ramifications. While it was recognized that no individual could be fully knowledgeable of all upstream and downstream considerations of their research, it was unclear how a division of expertise in evaluating the 'impact' of science and technology is currently implemented and institutionalized. While the group felt that the level of training in areas including ethics, economics, policy and law should increase at higher levels of the hierarchy in decision making about funding allocations, it was unclear at what stage they themselves would receive this training, particularly prior to be asked to review grants etc as incoming PIs. The group expressed interest in having a senior PI and/or someone from a federal funding agency come speak about how federal priorities in science and technology are set and how this maps on to their individual expectations and responsibilities.
May 2nd 2011
Ethics of Intentional Environmental Release
The ethics of releasing GM mosquitos to control disease spread, and the ethics of intentional environmental release in general.
Our discussion on the ethics of intentionally releasing GM organisms touched widely on many questions: We debated whether releasing GM organisms is any different from other methods of ecosystem alteration, e.g. pesticides. We touched on whether Oxitec truly acted immorally if it was the Malaysian government's responsibility to publicize the release. We suggested various international law measures, such as a UN panel or treaty, to help compromise between the desire for immediate action of afflicted developing countries versus the desire of the developed world to mitigate risk. Finally, we discussed at what places in the academic and industrial pipelines regulatory checks could be enacted, touching on the usual ideas of ethical training for researchers and legal restrictions on companies, and also coming up with the new idea of making ethical decisions at the grant approval stage, by considering ethical implications as part of a grant proposal's merit.
May 25th 2011
Philosophy and the ethics of synthetic biology
Jay led discussion on two papers, one written by philosophers and the other by a sociologist. He provided background on the four principles of bioethics, initially articulated at the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA and later codified into law. The group discussed the concern about scientists playing God and the different ways this concern can be understood, then moved on to the value of forms of life created specifically for human use. While accepting that certain types of knowledge could conceivably by too dangerous to be widely disseminated, the group tended to defend the researcher against accusations of wrongdoing where knowledge is misused.
The group debated the value of concerns raised by the academic community versus those raised by the general public. If it is possible to achieve expertise in ethics (an open question), these experts are unlikely to be allowed to determine policy in a complex sociopolitical landscape. The group agreed that the set of bioethical principles is not sufficient to resolve contentious issues in synthetic biology, while asking what other guidelines could be used in the writing of good policy.