Project news

December 16, 2010

Presidential Commission on Bioethics Releases Synthetic Biology Report

WASHINGTON--Today, the Presidential Commission on Bioethics released a new report calling for enhanced federal oversight of synthetic biology. The report is the result of over six months of discussions and deliberation, including three public meetings, and contains 18 recommendations stressing the need for enhanced government transparency, high-level coordination, periodic risk assessments, ethics education for scientists and engineers, and greater public dialogue.

Trying to steer a middle course between oversight approaches that are overly prescriptive, or too laissez faire, the report advocates a principle of prudent vigilance, where the benefits and risks of synthetic biology are assessed both before and after projects are undertaken.

“The idea of prudent vigilance put forth in the report provides a valuable framework for the oversight of emerging technologies in general,” noted David Rejeski, who directs the Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “If properly implemented, it would constitute an anticipatory and adaptive management approach to introducing new technologies into society, one that could potentially reduce the chances for harmful unintended consequences.”

The report calls for periodic assessments of security and safety risks and analyses of potential gaps in oversight and regulatory authority as the science and applications of synthetic biology move forward. The Commission clearly wanted high level engagement and the report places a significant amount of responsibility for implementation in the Executive Office of the President (though largely steers clear of identifying specific offices within the White House).

The report says little about accountability. “For the Commission’s work to have lasting impact, progress towards these recommendations needs to be measured, data made publically available, and pressure maintained on the implementing parties,” said Rejeski.

The report can be found at: