College of Agriculture & Natural Resources

University of Maryland Researcher Advocates For Precaution and Governance of Emerging Technologies

Report explores gene drive technology as key example

College Park, MD -- In the wake of her contribution to a 2016 report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) on gene drive research, Lisa Taneyhill, Ph.D., is again on the national stage as an advocate for precaution and governance of emerging technologies utilizing gene drive exploration as a precedent. The academic journal Science has just published Taneyhill’s article aptly titled, Precaution and governance of emerging technologies, a piece that makes the case for “constraints on the use of technology whose outcomes include potential harms and are characterized by high levels of complexity and uncertainty.” While she is transparent about the potential benefits of research on gene drives, the report is an intricate examination of how precaution and support for the science should be synergistic. Taneyhill has produced this article with select colleagues from an NAS convened committee of experts put in place to facilitate a more measured approach to research and governance of gene drive technology.

Taneyhill argues that precaution should be observed as a contextual approach vs. a broadly defined high-level principle. Critics contend that precaution is generally irrational and paralyzing, and sets impossible demands, which implies a “give up” attitude precluding any future realization of the technology’s potential benefits. Taneyhill’s contextual approach begins from first understanding the science, how the science might be used and the ripple effects of its usage. Her report recommends research on gene drives under four broadly defined constraints, with full transparency into how benefits make prohibiting the research a moot point, and how drawbacks make quick commitment a dangerous idea.

“This report should not be construed as placing a barricade in front of gene drive research. We are simply recommending a series of checkpoints and considerations before jumping into the deep end,” says Taneyhill. “There are many objections to precaution, two of which are “risk panic” which is the concept of precaution rooted in emotion, and the idea of it being too vague and ambiguous to be useful. We understand these concerns, but there is fundamental uncertainty in gene drive research, which could lead to an environmental imbalance. The range of effects needs to be considered, studied and measured.”

Taneyhill’s report can be accessed at: http://go.umd.edu/5f3. As background, it may be instructive to review her NAS report, Gene Drives on the Horizon: Advancing Science, Navigating Uncertainty, and Aligning Research with Public Values at http://go.umd.edu/5fw.

Lisa Taneyhill is available for media commentary. Her contact information is contained here.

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