Garage Biotech and Suppression by Regulation

As a follow-up to my most recent post on a future of garage biotechnology - a future that could look much like present day open source software development, rife with possibilities; ever more efficient, ever better - you might want to read this rather depressing piece from Wired:

The main factor limiting an amateur biotech community is the immaturity of the technology, according to Drew Endy, a biological engineering professor at MIT. "Even though it's cheap it's extraordinarily difficult," he said. "The technology isn't reliable enough."

And there's another reason.

"People are very comfortable manipulating silicon," said Endy. "A lot of people, to be blunt about it, are not comfortable with taking responsibility for the manipulation of genetics."

Kim Coghill, a spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, was wary of a potential Bill Gates of biotech starting out as an amateur. "I hope he's not doing (something) in his basement without the guidance of the FDA," she said.

All the members of the collective are familiar with the case of Steve Kurtz, a professor and artist who has had to defend himself against accusations of "bio-terrorism" after local police happened upon his amateur home lab in May 2004.

He says his case has had a moderate "chilling effect."

"Amateurs need experts," Kurtz said. "We come to them with ideas and ask them for help. Scientists are (now) a lot more hesitant to get involved."

Kurtz adds that Tepnel, the company selling a biokit used to conduct a homebrew test for genetically modified organisms designed by Critical Art Ensemble, now refuses to sell to the general public.

Imagine where we'd be today if prosecutors and regulators were breathing down the necks of the early computer hobbyists in the 70s. These groups were part of a culture that gave rise to a huge industry and an ongoing empowerment of the common person far greater than any that has come before. Imagine if those people had not been able to obtain basic parts, if no company would sell to them, if innovation in computing had been squashed down to whatever happened within the conceptual boxes of a few large pre-existing companies and university departments. Government employees are not enablers of progress - they are millstones; the glue in the works; the boot on the neck.

As I've said before, of the challenges facing the future of healthy life extension research and the growth of beneficial biotechnology, it is ignorant, misguided, meddling politicians and bureaucrats that worry me the most. At the end of their road of regulation, taxation, hostility to economic and research freedom, and centralized control lies something that looks much like the old Soviet Union - and each step towards that end is a step away from better medicine and longer, healthier lives.

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Comments

hmmm - regarding innovation and government employees...it's not as one dimensional as you portray. Darpa has had a pretty good track record. I'm not denying what you say...just saying that the world is far more complicated than any one ism can account for.

Dave

Posted by: Dave at July 7th, 2006 5:44 AM

You don't get DARPA without also getting pork, welfare, corruption, regulation, rampant use of force and massive waste. Big government is a package deal.

Posted by: Reason at July 7th, 2006 6:45 AM

I agree with Reason.

If hobbyists can get their hands on the technology, innovation will happen at a much faster pace. 1000s of individuals all working separately will cover a lot more ground then 1000s of people taking orders from a few.

I think DARPA is always a wild card though. Their interests are much longer term then the current administration.

Posted by: Jow at July 8th, 2006 7:04 AM

Government programs have been shown to be more wasteful than thier private industry counterparts. One of the problems with goverment programs is that they are very responsive to change. Some government programs appear to have yeilded some benefits to us (Interstate Highways, the internet), but what would we have come up with if government hadn't been the catalyst here? I'd bet good money that we'd have something even better and lower cost than what we have in those areas now.

Posted by: David at July 11th, 2006 5:09 AM

sorry, meant to say government programs aren't very responsive to change.

Posted by: David at July 11th, 2006 5:11 AM

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