Policy Innovation in Synthetic Biology Governance

Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, United States


Governance for synthetic biology (SB) is a topic of current policy discussions. This paper argues that the framing of the governance debate is overly simplistic in practice and theory, and thus governance is lagging behind technological innovation. It calls for “innovation in governance” to match technological innovation. To do so, three specific approaches are suggested. First, in the practical realm, SB has not been appropriately unpacked for meaningful conversations about governance. Disagreements in governance often arise from different conceptualizations of what SB is. In this article, the development of a typology (aka a classification system) of SB applications is suggested to move governance discussions from the very general to more nuanced, actionable items. Second, in the theoretical realm, framing SB governance as a continuum of approaches, rather than a dichotomy, is recommended to allow for stakeholders to express different values, but transcend the old, contentious, and unproductive debate over precaution versus promotion. Finally, because SB will change and develop rapidly, governance should be dynamic. Decisions about movement along the continuum should allow for more responsive governance and better opportunities for compromise among stakeholders with divergent opinions. However, these discussions should not be left only to those developing or regulating the technology, as they do not hold all the requisite expertise. A more diverse set of stakeholders and citizens with local knowledge and expertise need to be included.