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Public role in reviewing gene editing.

In "CRISPR Democracy: Gene Editing and the Need for Inclusive Deliberation" (Issues, Fall 2015), Sheila Jasanoff, J. Benjamin Hurlbut, and Krishanu Saha argue that the 1975 Asilomar summit is an unsuitable model for evaluating emerging science and technology. They maintain that although review by researchers and other experts is a necessary part of deliberation about science policy and practice, it is insufficient. In a democracy, members of the public should have a role in such deliberation.

I agree wholeheartedly. Gene editing is just one of many contemporary scientific developments that ought to receive more public consideration than they have. Examples of such developments include gene drives, human-animal chimeras, and dual-use research. To date, policy deliberation and debate on these topics has been conducted primarily by expert groups composed of scientists, bioethicists, and other professionals.

Not surprisingly, scientists tend to favor narrow limits on research. As Jasanoff, Hurlbut, and Saha observe, participants in the Asilomar summit adopted a restrictive definition of risk that greatly influenced subsequent formal regulation. The approach has contributed to ongoing controversies over recombinant DNA (rDNA) applications, such as genetically modified crops. It has also contributed to public mistrust about some rDNA applications.

The challenge is to design and conduct a process that allows meaningful, ongoing public engagement. As a scholar focused on bioethics and policy, I have spent my entire career as an outsider in medicine and science. Having participated as an outsider in many research policy activities, I know how difficult it can be to achieve truly inclusive deliberation.

A number of conditions must be met for successful deliberation among people from widely different backgrounds to occur. Both experts and members of the public need adequate education and preparation for the relevant activity. Participants must represent diverse constituencies and respect the knowledge that each participant brings to the table. Moderators must ensure that all have opportunities to contribute, rather than allowing particular individuals and interest groups to dominate. These are only some of the necessary elements of inclusive deliberation.

I do not mean to suggest that the impediments are insurmountable. For more than a decade, there have been extensive efforts to promote community engagement and public deliberation in decisions about health research and policy. Much has been learned about inclusive deliberation in the process. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, as well as other scientific organizations, should take this knowledge into account in structuring their policy activities. The Asilomar summit is an antiquated and inadequate deliberative model for today's science policy.


Daniel Noyes Kirby Professor of Law and professor of ethics in medicine Washington University in St. Louis

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Title Annotation:FORUM
Author:Dresser, Rebecca
Publication:Issues in Science and Technology
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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