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Report finds US slow to implement synthetic biology policies

More than one report from an august body of experts has gathered dust in Washington DC.  But the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a public-policy think tank based in the US capital, is setting out today to make sure that does not happen when the subject is synthetic biology.

The centre today launched a ‘scorecard‘  that will monitor the progress made on 18 recommendations proposed in December 2010 by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.

That report, New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies, was requested by President Barack Obama in May 2010, after J. Craig Venter and his colleagues published the first synthetic bacterial genome.

The Wilson centre’s new scorecard makes it clear that progress implementing the commission’s proposals — several of which are on an 18-month timeline — has been middling, if that. For instance, the scorecard reports “no activities identified” in the executive office of the President on the first recommendation: that the US government compile a comprehensive inventory of its current funding for synthetic-biology research, complete it and publish it by June 2012.

“They said they haven’t been able to work on it,” David Rejeski, director of the centre’s Synthetic Biology Project, told Nature. “We couldn’t find any evidence that there was any activity going on.”

Rejeski points out that the cataloguing project, although challenging, is not impossible. In 2010, the centre compiled its own 2010 inventory of trends in synthetic biology research and funding in the US and Europe.

All told, the centre’s scorecard identifies some US government activity on ten of the 18 recommendations, which cover topics including risk assessment, oversight, ethics and research coordination.  It judges that none of the 18 is “completed,” although the commission recommended that six of them should be finished by June.  It does point out where salient efforts have been made. For instance, the report’s fifth recommendation calls for the US to identify gaps in current risk assessment practices aiming to avert the field release of synthetic organisms. In response, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, with other agencies, has convened an interagency policy coordinating committee to tackle the issues. In March 2011, it published a set of principles for regulating emerging technologies, including synthetic biology.

The scorecard also documents numerous non-federal efforts on the recommendations, many of which predate the bioethics report’s publication.

The scorecard notes that there has been no government activity in one area that the commission stressed and encapsulated in its fourth recommendation: that the US develop “a clear, defined and coordinated approach to synthetic biology research and development across the US government.”

The White House, including its Office of Science and Technology Policy — which was pointed to at the time of the report’s publication as a potential venue for such coordination — could not be reached on short notice for comment on the centre’s scorecard. This blog will be updated if and when the White House offers a response.

Richard Ebright, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, who works with synthetic-biology approaches and has long watched associated safety issues, criticized the bioethics commission’s report at the time of its publication as “very thin gruel“.

The scorecard’s findings, he said yesterday, are “par for the course in research oversight. The pattern has been for recommendations to be made and those recommendations then to be ignored.” (Human subjects and vertebrate animal research are important exceptions to this, he argues.)

A case in point, Ebright says, is the recent, parallel controversy around whether publication of papers in Nature and Science documenting the creation of a highly transmissible strain of avian influenza should be suppressed. If recommendations on oversight of such work made in a National Research Council report in 2004 and by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity in 2007 had been implemented instead of ignored, he argues, then the current, crushing race to develop a response that protects both public health and scientific inquiry could have been averted.

“The synthetic biology report looks like it’s on the same track — a track that leads nowhere,” Ebright says.

But the press release that accompanied the Wilson centre’s scorecard makes it clear that the centre plans to be watching the watchmen.

“The Commission’s report was a landmark document and lays out a framework with broad applicability to many emerging technologies, but, like many reports of this type, no mechanisms were put in place to track progress,” says Rejeski. “Our goal is ensure that this report — and others like it — can drive change.”

Rejeski says that the centre will put out a full report on progress implementing the recommendations in June, when 18 months have elapsed, and at six-month intervals thereafter.

Nature’s news story dissecting the commission’s report at the time of its publication is available here.



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