For my project, Safeguarding DIY Biology, I will propose a mitigation strategy (regulation) that combines the levers of law, markets, and code. This issue, like the many other technology-focused projects discussed in our class, requires a multifaceted approach to anticipate and stem nefarious use-cases.
Proposal: A centralized federal agency to oversee gene synthesis and biotechnology product licensing in the United States.
- A presiding council consisting of members from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), National Institute of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation, academics in social sciences and scientists, physicians, and representatives from the private sector.
- Patents for biotechnology products must go through a secondary vetting process that performs a risk assessment of the product in question. Patent applications will be granted a class status: general (no serious risk), limited (potential risk), and reserved (serious risk).
- Depending on the results of the risk assessment, federal government will either take a minor (general patents) or moderate (limited patents) role in regulating the granting and licensing of patents. In the case of reserved patents, the government will create a commission to research how to inactivate the potential risk. In the case of moderate patents, the government may conditionally grant patents after certain conditions are met by the applicant.
Rationale: Biotechnology is a dual-use technology: it can either be used for the public benefit (drug development) or public harm (bioterrorism, misinformation). Biology research is still heavily networked, it requires supplies and resources (materials) from a variety of actors. Its through these materials that concepts and ideas are realized. These materials are used by DIY Biologists, academic and industrial scientist alike.
Levers in action :
Example: Patent Application for a novel DNA synthesis technology (limited patent)
Background: The building block of biology is DNA. Applications of biotechnology largely require very particular segments of DNA to be generated to create higher order bio-machinery. Because of this, DNA synthesis, the making of strands of DNA is a control gate for many downstream biotechnical outputs.
Law: Creating a federal agency that oversees this process would provide enforcement avenues to hem in potential bad actors. Inventors of a novel DNA synthesis technology would have to follow directives from the government to insure that checks are in place.
Market: Granting patents allows the applicant the exclusive right to market and sell a piece of technology. This is lucrative for the applicant and would provide an incentive for them to patent. If a method like this is implemented, risk assessment checks would be standardized.
Code: Hardware locks on machinery that perform DNA synthesis can used to prevent the development of higher order bio-machinery that is deemed by the presiding council to present risk.
As I’ve worked through some of the recurring themes and issues for my project, I’ve come to see that many of the issues that make DIY Biology difficult to safeguard are similar to the factors that make biology on the whole difficult to safeguard. For this assignment, I decided to tease out some of the factors specific to DIY Biology that can be addressed.
HOW MIGHT WE: Make informal biology research responsible
Ten Divergent Ideas
- Create bioengineering licenses mandatory to order material from chemical suppliers
- Have DIYBio spaces vet/screen potential new projects/ideas
- Censor biological protocol information on the web
- Create training modules to educate DIY Biologists about potential risks
- Limit the kinds of supplies that be ordered by DIYBio labs
- Create national steward program to fund biosafety officers at all DIYBio labs
- Have biosafety trainings are DIY Bio convenings
- Award prizes at DIY Bio competitions for top biosafety programs
- Create funding available for labs that have active biosafety awareness programs
- Create a national hotline/tip system to anonymously tip off authorities to bad actors