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Some Progess but US Still Lagging Behind on Many Synthetic Biology Recommendations, Scorecard Finds

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Despite steps by the US government to address recommendations from a presidential bioethics commission on synthetic biology research and development, the federal government has not fully addressed any of those recommendations, which were made in a 2010 report, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars said on Monday.

In December 2010, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues issued a report to address both concerns about synbio technologies and ways the US government could help spur beneficial innovations.

In a scorecard issued on Monday, the Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center determined that the Obama administration has taken steps to pursue most of the commission's recommendations. Some of the measures the government has already taken include evaluating research proposals to ensure that promising research is conducted on synbio on behalf of the public; studying how research licensing and sharing practices affect research in this field; reviewing the potential for synbio organisms to multiply in the environment; identifying caps in current risk assessment practices related to the field release of synthetic organisms; assessing specific security and safety risks; and others.

The project also noted recent steps taken, including a White House-led interagency working group looking at government on the issue of the commission's recommendations, as well as a six-party meeting at the National
Academy of Sciences involving representatives from the UK and China, and the release of a National Bioeconomy Blueprint report by the White House in April.

However, the administration still has yet to pursue some other recommendations, according to the Wilson Center, such as using risk assessments to determine if research organisms or commercial synbio products are released into the environment, conducting an evaluation of potential moral objections to synbio in general, undertaking a review of all public funding for synbio activities, and conducting an evaluation of the risks and benefits of the production and distribution of synthetic organisms.

The Wilson Center project is keeping a Synthetic Biology Scorecard to provide progress reports on the government's efforts to implement the policies advocated in the Presidential Commission's report, New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies.

The Bioethics Commission report laid out 18 total recommendations for things that the government could do to provide oversight, address safety, security, and ethical concerns related to synthetic biology without handicapping innovations in important areas such as biofuel development, medicine, bioremediation, agriculture, and others.

The Woodrow Wilson Center is tracking 17 of those recommendations and said that on 13 of them, there was some level of federal activity, while in four, there was no activity. The scorecard found that of six recommendations from the Presidential Commission that called for federal action within 18 months, or by mid-June, none had been fully addressed. Of those six, five saw some level of government activity.