[Editor's Note: Our Big Moral Question this month is, "Do government regulations help or hurt the goal of responsible and timely scientific innovation?"]
After biomedical scientists demonstrated that they could make dangerous viruses like influenza even more dangerous, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) implemented a three-year moratorium on funding such research. But a couple of months ago, in December, the moratorium was lifted, and a tight set of rules were put in its place, such as a mandate for oversight panels.
"The sort of person who thinks like a bureaucratic regulator isn't the sort of person who thinks like a scientist."
The prospect of engineering a deadly pandemic virus in a laboratory suggests that only a fool would wish away government regulation entirely.
However, as a whole, regulation has done more harm than good in the arena of scientific innovation. The reason is that the sort of person who thinks like a bureaucratic regulator isn't the sort of person who thinks like a scientist. The sad fact of the matter is that those most interested in the regulatory process tend to be motivated by politics and ideology rather than scientific inquiry and technological progress.
Consider genetically engineered crops and animals, for instance. Beyond any reasonable doubt, data consistently have shown them to be safe, yet they are routinely held in regulatory limbo. For instance, it took 20 years for the AquAdvantage salmon, which grows faster than ordinary salmon, to gain approval from the FDA. What investor in his right mind would fund an entrepreneurial scientist who wishes to create genetically engineered consumer goods when he is assured that any such product could be subjected to two decades of arbitrary and pointless bureaucratic scrutiny?
Other well-intentioned regulations have created enormous problems for society. Medicine costs too much. One reason is that there is no international competition in the U.S. marketplace because it is nearly impossible to import drugs from other countries. The FDA's overcautious attitude toward approving new medications has ushered in a grassroots "right-to-try" movement, in which terminal patients are demanding access to potentially life-saving (but also potentially dangerous) treatments that are not yet federally approved. The FDA's sluggishness in approving generics also allowed the notorious former hedge fund manager Martin Shkreli to jack up the price of a drug for HIV patients because there were no competitors on the market. Thankfully, the FDA and politicians are now aware of these self-inflicted problems and are proposing possible solutions.
"Other well-intentioned regulations have created enormous problems for society."
The regulatory process itself drags on far too long and consists of procedural farces, none more so than public hearings and the solicitation of public comments. Hearings are often dominated by activists who are more concerned with theatrics and making the front page of a newspaper rather than contributing meaningfully to the scientific debate.
It is frankly absurd to believe that scientifically untrained laypeople have anything substantive to say on matters like biomedical regulation. The generals at the Pentagon quite rightly do not seek the public's council before they draw up battlefield plans, so why should scientists be subjected to an unjustifiable level of public scrutiny? Besides, there is a good chance that a substantial proportion of feedback is fake, anyway: A Wall Street Journal investigation uncovered that thousands of posts on federal websites seeking public comment on topics like net neutrality are fraudulent.
In other cases, out-of-date regulations remain on the books, holding back progress. For more than 20 years, the Dickey-Wicker Amendment has tied the hands of the NIH, essentially preventing it from funding any research that must first create human embryos or derive new embryonic stem cell lines. This seriously impedes progress in regenerative medicine and dampens the potential revolutionary potential of CRISPR, a genome editing tool that could someday be used in adult gene therapy or to "fix" unhealthy human embryos.
"Regulators and especially politicians give the false impression that any new scientific innovation should be made perfectly safe before it is allowed on the market."
Biomedicine isn't the only science to suffer at the hands of regulators. For years, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) – an organization ostensibly concerned about nuclear safety – instead has played politics with nuclear power, particularly over a proposed waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain. Going all the way back to the Reagan administration, Yucca has been subjected to partisan assaults, culminating in the Obama administration's mothballing the project. Under the Trump administration, the NRC is once again reconsidering its future.
Perhaps the biggest problem that results from overregulation is a change in the culture. Regulators and especially politicians give the false impression that any new scientific innovation should be made perfectly safe before it is allowed on the market. This notion is known as the precautionary principle, and it is the law in the European Union. The precautionary principle is a form of technological timidity that is partially to blame for Europe's lagging behind America in groundbreaking research.
Besides, perfect safety is an impossible goal. Nothing in life is perfectly safe. The same people who drive to Whole Foods to avoid GMOs and synthetic pesticides seem not to care that automobiles kill 30,000 Americans every single year.
Government regulation is necessary because people rightfully expect a safe place to work and live. However, charlatans and lawbreakers will always exist, no matter how many new rules are added. The proliferation of safety regulations, therefore, often results in increasing the burden on innovators without any concomitant increase in safety. Like an invasive weed, government regulation has spread far beyond its proper place in the ecosystem. It's time for a weedkiller.
[Ed. Note: Check out the opposite viewpoint here, and follow LeapsMag on social media to share your perspective.]
Rob Waddell dreaded getting a kidney transplant. He suffers from a genetic condition called polycystic kidney disease that causes the uncontrolled growth of cysts that gradually choke off kidney function. The inherited defect has haunted his family for generations, killing his great grandmother, grandmother, and numerous cousins, aunts and uncles.
But he saw how difficult it was for his mother and sister, who also suffer from this condition, to live with the side effects of the drugs they needed to take to prevent organ rejection, which can cause diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer, and even kidney failure because of their toxicity. Many of his relatives followed the same course, says Waddell: "They were all on dialysis, then a transplant and ended up usually dying from cancers caused by the medications."
This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.
We invited Nobel Prize, National Medal of Science, and Breakthrough Prize Laureates working in America to offer advice to the next President on how to prioritize science and medicine in the next four years. Almost universally, these 28 letters underscore the importance of government support for basic or fundamental research to fuel long-term solutions to challenges like infectious diseases, climate change, and environmental preservation.
Many of these scientists are immigrants to the United States and emphasize how they moved to this country for its educational and scientific opportunities, which recently have been threatened by changes in visa policies for students and researchers from overseas. Many respondents emphasize the importance of training opportunities for scientists from diverse backgrounds to ensure that America can continue to have one of the strongest, most creative scientific workforces in the world.