By Meredith Wadman
On the same day in late May that J. Craig Venter and his co-authors published their synthetic bacterial genome, President Barack Obama asked his recently formed bioethics commission to tackle the implications of the milestone study as its "first order of business," and report back to him in six months.
A large part of the task before the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues is to tell the U.S. government what it should do to help Americans benefit from the developing field of synthetic biology, while minimizing risks and ensuring that, as Obama wrote in his request, "appropriate" ethical boundaries are respected.
On the eve of the 13-member commission's first public meeting on synthetic biology, Nature spoke with its chair Amy Gutmann, who is also president of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
What led you to take the job as chair of the commission?
I'm a political philosopher and a scholar of ethics and public policy by training. I have a long-standing interest in the importance of deliberating on complex issues of health care, science and technology. So when President Obama asked me to chair the commission, first of all I had to say "yes" because the President was asking me to serve. Second, it hit the sweet spot of my scholarly and professional interests.
In this era of sound-bite democracy, we need to recognize the importance of making democracies more deliberative. Deliberative democracy is about engaging: listening to competing points of view, considering opposing arguments and coming to a decision that ideally finds common ground--or at least respects competing points of view.
Who is on the commission and how do you see their various backgrounds contributing to your collective work?
We have a terrific group that I am privileged to work with. The membership is very wide-ranging and of stellar caliber. We have Jim Wagner as our vice chair, an eminent engineer who is president of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia; two MD-PhDs, one a Franciscan friar; two JD-PhDs; an MBA who is a patient advocate; three members of the federal government; two members of the military; and several leaders in ethics and genetics.
Why do you think a bioethics commission is necessary, and what role should it play in how science is conducted?
The best that any democracy can do in the face of disagreement on complex issues is to have deliberation among experts in a way that is transparent to the public. As synthetic biology, for example, grows in prominence, the pitch of public commentary may grow with it. This will lead to constructive, well-informed decision-making only if it doesn't devolve into attacks and innuendos based on extreme and exaggerated claims made by opposing sides.
What the commission will do is to take this debate above that kind of low-level attack. It will also bring it into the open so that experts and the public can engage in a high-level discussion, with the aim of giving constructive advice to the President based on evidence and values.
What challenges do you anticipate over the next six months?
The biggest challenge is that every major breakthrough in science--such as discovering new ways to create and enhance life--carries both benefits and risks. Our challenge is to consider all reasonable perspectives on synthetic biology and allow for an exchange of ideas that leads to as much common ground as possible. Then we can issue a report that discusses how governments can ensure that these and future discoveries are used in ethical and responsible ways that benefit the human condition and minimize risk.
Given the nature of Craig Venter's achievement, is it too late to start that process?
Not at all. His achievement is a step in the ongoing evolution of different methods of scientific and technological inquiry. There are already protocols in place--one of the questions that the commission will ask is whether those laws, policies and regulations are adequate for the future. Venter and his colleagues' work is a significant step, but it does not leap beyond the point where society has a chance to deliberate about its benefits, its risks and the ethical boundaries that exist or must be put in place. That's what the commission is charged with doing and I think we have ample time to do it.
What models do you see in the work of previous presidential commissions on bioethics?
There have been quite a few bioethics commissions, going back to the 1970s. There were also specific national commissions in the mid-1990s, such as the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments and the National Institutes of Health's Human Embryo Research Panel. Some of these were given a list of topics to study; others were charged with creating their own. Some, including this commission, received at least one request from the President to study and report on what I would call a specific hot-button issue. And then they were allowed to set their own agendas.
The commission is ultimately only advisory in nature. What difference do you think it can make in influencing policy?
Our power is in the reasonableness of our recommendations. Then we have to leave it to those whom we advise. Our report will be out there in the public domain and that has value in itself. We will be giving the most practical advice possible, consistent with our mandate, to recommend ethically and socially responsible policies to the President.
What will the commission be doing over the coming months?
We will hold our first open meeting in Washington DC this week, followed by two more: at the University of Pennsylvania on September 13-14 and at Emory University in November. The public is invited to all of these meetings--all will be webcast and there will be transcripts of each one, available together with meeting information on the commission's web site.
Can a member of the public comment if they can't attend a meeting?
Yes. A request for commentary is on the web site. We are committed to giving Americans opportunities to participate in the process and very much hope that they will take us up on the invitation.