My Take: The Future of Biotechnology

C-PET’s November 5 roundtable

Nigel M. de S. Cameron

Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies

Washington, DC

Our roundtable on the future of the biotech industry drew together some of its smartest participants.

Jennie Hunter-Cevera, Executive VP at RTI, was until recently president of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute. Gregory Stock, co-founder of Signum Biosciences, had an earlier and distinguished career writing on bioethics. Robert Friedman, director of the J. Craig Venter Institute’s San Diego facility, once worked in DC at the sadly defunct congressional Office of Technology Assessment. Rachel Levinson, Director of National Research Initiatives for Arizona State University – who was once biotechnology lead for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. That said, some further 60 participants sat round the table and crammed the seats around the walls, including senior representatives from various agencies including the departments of State and Defense, science attaches and at least one ambassador from nearly a dozen embassies and missions, and assorted leaders from the think tank and wider policy communities. In a town that tends to cope with events like this by sending the most junior person in the office along to take notes, so far as I’m aware there was only one intern in the entire group. Maybe that’s because we serve such great sandwiches and coffee.

And there was a corresponding buzz to the occasion. “Welcome to our latest mash-up,” I said to greet the crowd, noting that perhaps half of them would have been well qualified to be part of the panel – including some distinguished voices who are becoming regulars at our roundtables and made substantive contributions again this time. Martin Apple, President of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents. Tom Donlan, editorial page editor at Baron’s. Garland McCoy, a founder of the Technology Policy Institute. John Palafoutas from the Task Force for American Innovation. Simon Berkovich from George Washington University. Robert McCreight, after a long career at State, now at George Mason. Jaydee Hanson, formerly with the United Methodist Church and now the Center for Technology Assessment. Mike Nelson from Georgetown, who like me was tweeting (go to #c-pet if you want some epigrammatic gems from @mikenelson and @nigelcameron) though Twitter seems barely have arrived this far east – if needed, there’s a DC tech policy parable. Jim DeLong of the Convergence Law Institute. On it goes.

After pithy perspectives from the panelists the conversation ranged from IP to investment to hope and hype and back. And here’s a thought someone shared: would new synbio organisms fall under the Endangered Species Act? A major point of focus was the recent announcement that the Department of Justice had reversed the policy of administrations of both parties by taking the view that the isolation of individual genes was not patentable. Opinions were expressed pro and con, with concern expressed as to the potential impact of this news on investment – introducing a fresh element of uncertainty into an already less than robust situation. But it was also noted that solid opposition to the concept of gene patents was articulated by conservative and liberal religious leaders in an unusual act of public agreement some time ago.

There are also a focus on the big picture of bioscience. Has it been wrongly focused? The complexity that has unfolded since the beginnings of modern genetics seems to keep on going. A fundamental focus on epigenetics is needed. Interdisciplinary approaches are crucial, and some raised whether the set-up of NIH and other research funding agencies should be reconfigured.

Another special focus was on risk. One strand of discussion: our systems are much too risk averse; the FDA would not now approve either aspirin or penicillin; what of the risks we take by failing to embrace new therapeutic options? Another strand: we need to find a consensus that is cautionary in exploring these new frontiers – in contrast to the European “precautionary” principle that many see as unduly negative, yet very alive to the detection of risk in parallel with new developments. Another strand: how do we assess and handle the risk inherent in synthetic biology and other developments with dangerous pathogens – which unlike even nuclear material have a capacity for indefinitely scaled harm? Focus here from some highly-expert participants was on the need for the right people to be doing the work and handling the materials, as other kinds of controls cannot be adequate (my comment: a trusted traveler approach). A further reminder that the asymmetric century is an inherently unstable and scary place to be; but it’s where we are.

From my moderator’s perch I tried to press the question of how things are trending, what the industry will look like in 10 years, and was waiting and hoping for some forthright declarations of confidence and vision. But I think it’s fair to say they were not to be had. Shall we in 10 years we shall still be facing the doubts and investment problems and controversial disruptions we do now?

Permission granted to reproduce in full and with acknowledgement.

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