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Ethics in Biology, Engineering and Medicine: An International Journal

ISSN Print: 2151-805X
ISSN Online: 2151-8068

Ethics in Biology, Engineering and Medicine: An International Journal

DOI: 10.1615/EthicsBiologyEngMed.2016016470
pages 305-312

Governance Lessons for CRISPR/Cas9 from the Missed Opportunities of Asilomar

Shobita Parthasarathy
Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan, 4202 Weill Hall, 735 S. State Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48109

ABSTRACT

The 1975 Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA (rDNA) research is frequently cited as a great success in the history of science and technology policy. It demonstrated that scientists could come together to develop policy recommendations that would contain emerging concerns about a new technology, while allowing the technology to develop. In the years since, the Asilomar model has been used repeatedly, on technologies from synthetic biology to geoengineering, and is now invoked repeatedly in discussions about regulating CRISPR/Cas9, the new gene-editing technology. In this article, I argue that it is both a poor and politically dangerous modes for governing emerging technologies, and for CRISPR/Cas9 in particular. While it is usually lauded for containing controversy and building consensus efficiently, I suggest that it was far too limited in terms of both its participants and its scope. As a result, it missed opportunities to anticipate and address emerging concerns related to the ethical, social, and economic concerns of biotechnology, which has embroiled much of the world in controversy since. I conclude by suggesting how we can do better in developing a governance framework for CRISPR/Cas9, by carefully deploying the insights developed by scholars of science and technology policy and by learning the lessons of history. This will require policymakers to develop a more critical understanding of problem framing and its consequences, think creatively about regulatory interventions, and incorporate public expertise.