Public Policy Committee Chair, Wayne Parrott

It has been said that those who don’t remember history are condemned to repeat it; those who do remember history are condemned to stand by and watch while everyone else repeats it.

The advent of genome engineering has re-invigorated plant biotechnology.  There is excitement in the air accompanied by investment capital and new startup firms, reminiscent of the early days of genetic engineering.  Will editing be regulated into irrelevance?

This clipping is from the Star Tribune, dated 4 Oct 1981.  At the time, the promise of biotech was to provide green, high-paying jobs in numerous communities.  Today, nothing of the sort ever happened.  Instead we have 4 corporations dominating the field.  What happened?

More than anything else, regulations happened.  Engineered microorganisms are classified as toxic substances and treated accordingly, while pest-resistant plants are legally considered to be pesticides if they are produced through engineering.  And this is in the US, which has a relatively ‘light touch’ regulatory system.  More often than not, the deployment of beneficial engineered traits is too expensive to be feasible, and these simply languish in laboratory shelves to no one’s benefit.

All too often, scientists have the conviction that logic will prevail when regulations are being formulated, and therefore they do not get involved.  In reality, scientists must never assume the evidence speaks for itself, that there is rhyme or reason to the policymaking process, or that regulators will be familiar with their publications relevant to the topic1.

Other scientists feel getting involved is unbecoming to scientists, while others simply do not know how to get involved.  As a consequence, regulators are left to their own devices, or worse, are left with misinformation provided by groups opposed to particular technologies.  Given that many regulators (or at least, their bosses) are not always scientifically literate in the fields they regulate, much less scientifically minded, the resulting regulations often reflect political agendas rather than biology.  Technologies regulated without a scientific basis then wither on the vine.

Next year will be a key year for regulatory formulation and, possibly, reform in Washington as it pertains to plant and animal biotechnology.  The outcome will determine if genome editing gets to fulfill its promises in medicine and agriculture, or if it will be relegated to just a research tool that cannot leave laboratory walls.  Whatever is decided in Washington will set an important global precedent.

Scientist participation in rule-making is no longer an option.  It is an absolute requirement.  We either engage with the process, or suffer the consequences.

The SIVB public policy committee plans to be fully engaged as the discussion continues.  We encourage all the membership to participate on their own as well.  In the meantime, all members should feel free to contact any member of the public policy committee with questions or concerns.

[1] Stokstad, Erik.  2017.  Do’s and don’ts for scientists who want to shape policy.  Science, doi:10.1126/science.aal0728

Submitted by Wayne Parrott
Chair, Public Policy Committee