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“Off Ramps Rather than Barricades” in Governance of Emerging Technologies

Hastings Center research scholar Gregory Kaebnick is the lead author of an article in the November 11 issue of the journal Science that discusses the benefits of precautionary approaches to governance of emerging technology.

Precautionary approaches, which call for constraints on the use of technology whose potential harms and other outcomes are highly uncertain, are often criticized for reflecting “risk panics.” But the article concludes that precaution can be consistent with support for science.

The article discusses the benefits of precaution in the context of gene drives, technologies that hold promise for addressing persistent problems, such as eradicating mosquito-borne diseases and conserving endangered species, but that also risks harming entire ecosystems. Kaebnick was a member of a U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) committee on gene drive research, which issued a report last summer that recommended a precautionary approach.

The article expands upon the NASEM report’s recommendations. Rather than argue for a precautionary approach to all research on gene drives–such as moratoria until stringent global oversight is enacted– the report calls for “targeted but meaningful measures.” Such measures would identify specific and manageable concerns, such as that gene drives could have unwanted effects in an organism’s genome, a gene drive-modified organism could have unwanted effects on an ecosystem, and what counts as “unwanted” may vary among different people.

Targeted measures would not aim to halt research on gene drives but instead would “establish conditions under which it can be successful,” the authors write. “They constitute a path toward possible release of gene drives–a route with flashing red lights, checkpoints, and off ramps rather than barricades.”

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