The blog of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

Aristotle would be proud: `Prudent vigilance’ for synthetic biology

Since there are so many unknowns about synthetic biology, should the federal government follow Europe’s approach to genetically modified food? That is, not allow research to go forward until it’s proven safe?

That question was posed by Dr. John D. Arras, a member of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, during its hearing today in Atlanta.

Commission members Nita A. Farahany, left, and Dr. John D. Arras, right.

Arras, the Porterfield Professor of Biomedical Ethics and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Virginia, was presenting one of the Commission’s draft recommendations. The group will make final recommendations in a month to President Obama on federal oversight of synthetic biology.

Arras – and the Commission – do not back the European GM approach. Instead, they are now supporting a call for ongoing assessments of synthetic biology in order to stay abreast with any developments in the field.

“Synthetic biology is a new and very energetic field,’’ Arras said. “We are witnessing very rapid development. It’s very difficult to predict ahead of time what sorts of benefits will arise, or what sort of risks. We are speculating largely in the dark. We are facing a great amount of uncertainty. What is the proper attitude toward risk when the future is shrouded in uncertainty?’’

He continued: “Especially, what is the proper attitude in dealing with events which are in low probability range, but high in impact? We can think about organisms let loose in the environment, reeking havoc out there. This is a very serious risk, but hard to predict what the likelihood of that is. The same thing goes for risks under the heading of bioterrorism, bad actors doing terrible things. We know they are out there, but hard to get a handle on the quantity of the risk.’’

Arras posed two approaches to dealing with such unknown risk:

“One way of handling risk is to be proactive: Go full speed ahead, worry about risk later. This supports the values of scientific freedom and focuses on the benefits that derive from it,’’ he said. “The other extreme – the cautionary proposal – we’ve seen in Europe when it comes to genetically modified foods. In that case, there must be a promise of mitigation before one goes forward with research.’’

His conclusion? Neither route. He chose a middle road.

Arras, the philosopher he is, called it the Aristotelian Approach.

Following the footsteps of Aristotle meant: clearly define the issue, consider all accepted views on the subject, and present findings based on deduction and practical considerations.

We call it prudent vigilance,’’ Arras said of the views of fellow Commission members. “We recommend having ongoing assessments as the risk develops. We argue that research goes forward but with lots of safeguards.’’

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This is a space for the members and staff of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to communicate with the public about the work of the commission and to discuss important issues in bioethics.

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