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The Coolest Platform Raises the Hardest Questions

So who is speaking here, an ethicist, a scientist, or a policymaker?

It’s very hard for me to have a conversation about these issues, because people adopt incredibly defensive postures…The scientists on one side and civil-society organizations on the other. And, to be fair to those groups, science has often proceeded by skipping the dialogue. But some environmental groups will say, Let’s not permit any of this work to get out of a laboratory until we are sure it is all safe. And as a practical matter that is not the way science works. We can’t come back decades later with an answer. We need to develop solutions by doing them. The potential is great enough, I believe, to convince people it’s worth the risk.

That’s Drew Endy, assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, talking to Michael Specter in the current issue of The New Yorker about synthetic biology. This is more than just another example of great narrative science reporting from the magazine. It’s a showcase of candid, effective, values-based discussions about the social implications of an emerging technology.

Not only is Endy’s conscientious take on the promise and peril of synbio a perfect counter to anyone who claims that scientists don’t care about ethical boundaries; he also draws attention to a conversational impasse that prevents clear thinking on how to design useful regulatory policies.

Synbio is special among other emerging technologies like neuroscience and nanotechnology in that it already promises solutions to planet-scale problems in public health and energy. Specter opens the article with the story of how Jay Keasling at UC Berkeley built a breed of E. Coli bacteria that can manufacture artemisinin, a powerful treatment for drug-resistant malaria. Researchers are also hard at work designing organisms that can churn out biofuels at industrial scales. But the same open-source genetic components that build a life-saving bug could, in the wrong hands, build terrible pathogens.

As CAP Senior Fellow Andrew Light explained in a podcast on the ethics of emerging technologies, “The attitude is not to keep synbio from happening,” but rather to create and maintain public confidence in its benefits. Hearing clear, thoughtful messages from more scientists like Endy could go a long way to supporting that goal.

As Endy tells Specter, the reason many people recoil at the power to create synthetic life is “Because it’s scary as hell…It’s the coolest platform science has ever produced, but the questions it raises are the hardest to answer.”

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