Evaluating Technology Policy

Backstage Decisions, Front-stage Experts: Interviewing Genome-Editing Scientists

by Santiago Molina and Gordon PherriboCTSP Fellows

This is the first in a series of posts on the project “Democratizing” Technology: Expertise and Innovation in Genetic Engineering

When we think about who is making decisions that will impact the future health and wellbeing of society, one would hope that these individuals would wield their expertise in a way that addresses the social and economic issues affecting our communities. Scientists often fill this role: for example, an ecologist advising a state environmental committee on river water redistribution [1], a geologist consulting for an architectural team building a skyscraper [2], an oncologist discussing the best treatment options based on the patient’s diagnosis and values [3] or an economist brought in by a city government to help develop a strategy for allocating grants to elementary schools. Part of the general contract between technical experts and their democracies is that they inform relevant actors so that decisions are made with the strongest possible factual basis.

The three examples above describe scientists going outside of the boundaries of their disciplines to present for people outside of the scientific community “on stage” [4]. But what about decisions made by scientists behind the scenes about new technologies that could affect more than daily laboratory life? In the 1970s, genetic engineers used their technical expertise to make a call about an exciting new technology, recombinant DNA (rDNA). This technology allowed scientists to mix and add DNA from different organisms; later giving rise to engineered bacteria that could produce insulin and eventually transgenic crops. The expert decision making process and outcome, in this case, had little to do with the possibility of commercializing biotechnology or the economic impacts of GMO seed monopolies. This happened before the patenting of whole biological organisms [5], and the use of rDNA in plants in 1982. Instead, the emerging issues surrounding rDNA were dealt with as a technical issue of containment. Researchers wanted to ensure that anything tinkered with genetically stayed not just inside the lab, but inside specially marked and isolated rooms in the lab, eventually given rise to well-established institution of biosafety. A technical fix, for a technical issue.

Today, scientists are similarly engaged in a process of expert decision making around another exciting new technology, the CRISPR-Cas9 system. This technology allows scientists to make highly specific changes, “edits”, to the DNA of virtually any organism. Following the original publication that showed that CRISPR-Cas9 could be used to modify DNA in a “programmable” way, scientists have developed the system into a laboratory toolbox and laboratories across the life sciences are using it to tinker away at bacteria, butterflies, corn, frogs, fruit flies, human liver cells, nematodes, and many other organisms. Maybe because most people do not have strong feelings about nematodes, most of the attention in both popular news coverage and in expert circles about this technology has had to do with whether modifications that could affect human offspring (i.e. germline editing) are moral.  

We have been interviewing faculty members directly engaged in these critical conversations about the potential benefits and risks of new genome editing technologies. As we continue to analyze these interviews, we want to better understand the nature of these backstage conversations and learn how the experiences and professional development activities of these expects influenced their decision-making. In subsequent posts we’ll be sharing some of our findings from these interviews, which so far have highlighted the role of a wide range of technical experiences and skills for the individuals engaged in these discussions, the strength of personal social connections and reputation in getting you a seat at the table and the dynamic nature of expert decision making.

[1]  Scoville, C. (2017). “We Need Social Scientists!” The Allure and Assumptions of Economistic Optimization in Applied Environmental Science. Science as Culture, 26(4), 468-480.

[2] Wildermuth and Dineen (2017) “How ready will Bay Area be for next Quake?” SF Chronicle. Available online at: https://www.sfchronicle.com/news/article/How-ready-will-Bay-Area-be-for-next-big-quake-12216401.php

[3] Sprangers, M. A., & Aaronson, N. K. (1992). The role of health care providers and significant others in evaluating the quality of life of patients with chronic disease: a review. Journal of clinical epidemiology, 45(7), 743-760.

[4] Hilgartner, S. (2000). Science on stage: Expert advice as public drama. Stanford University Press.

[5] Diamond v Chakrabarty was in 1980, upheld first whole-scale organism patent (bacterium that could digest crude oil).

Preparing for Blockchain

by Ritt Keerati, CTSP Fellow | Permalink

Policy Considerations and Challenges for Financial Regulators (Part I)

Blockchain―a distributed ledger technology that maintains a continuously-growing list of records―is an emerging technology that has captured the imagination and investment of Silicon Valley and Wall Street. The technology has propelled the invention of virtual currencies such as Bitcoin and now holds promise to revolutionize a variety of industries including, most notably, the financial sector. Accompanying its disruptive potential, blockchain also carries significant implications and raises questions for policymakers. How will blockchain change the ways financial transactions are conducted? What risks will that pose to consumers and the financial system? How should the new technology be regulated? What roles should the government play in promoting and managing the technology?

READ MORE

Bodily Integrity in the Age of Dislocated Human Eggs

by Allyn Benintendi, CTSP Fellow | Permalink

In late October of 2012, soon after the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) lifted the experimental label from human egg freezing, the good news spread like wildfire (Frappier 2012). Egg freezing is a medical procedure that harvests and removes a female’s mature oocytes (eggs) from her body for rapid freezing and storage for later use. Even though the ASRM report deliberately warned against healthy women freezing their eggs for the sole purpose of delaying childbearing, some saw with egg freezing a world-changing opportunity. This opportunity rested in the idea that the institutional failures that females faced as both laborers and eventual mothers could be relieved by a medical procedure. Bloomberg Businessweek aptly identified the solution and the problem in a 2014 headline, “Freeze Your Eggs, Free Your Career.” For tech giants Facebook and Apple, egg freezing is now a part of professional benefits packages.

READ MORE

Bug Bounty Programs as a Corporate Governance “Best Practice” Mechanism

by Amit Elazari Bar On, CTSP Fellow | Permalink

Originally posted on Berkeley Technology Law Journal Blog, on March 22, 2017

In an economy where data is an emerging global currency, software vulnerabilities and security breaches are naturally a major area of concern. As society produces more lines of code, and everything – from cars to sex toys is becoming connected: vulnerabilities are produced daily.[1]   Data breaches’ costs are estimated at an average of $4 million for an individual breach, and $3 trillion in total cost. While some reports suggest lower figures, there is no debate that such vulnerabilities could result in astronomically losses if left unattended. And as we recently learned from the Cloudflare breach, data breaches are becoming more prominent and less predictable,[2] and even security companies get hacked.

READ MORE