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Stirling and Coburn--From CBA to Precautionary Appraisal + AS 3.pdf (534.48 kB)

From CBA to precautionary appraisal: practical responses to intractable problems

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journal contribution
posted on 2023-06-09, 14:44 authored by Andrew StirlingAndrew Stirling, Josie CoburnJosie Coburn
The purpose of this essay is to critically review the design of methods for ethically robust forms of technology appraisal in the regulation of research and innovation in synthetic biology. It will focus, in particular, on the extent to which cost-benefit analysis offers a basis for informing decisions about which technological pathways to pursue and which to discourage. A further goal is to consider what (if anything) the precautionary principle might offer in enabling better decisions. And this, in turn, raises questions about why mention of precaution can excite accusations of unscientific bias or irrational, “anti-innovation” extremism. What does the polarized debate tell us about the politics around synthetic biology? In seeking more rigorous, timely, and practical ways to govern these remarkable new technologies, what might we be missing? The sophistication, diversity, and scope of synthetic biology may seem to make it a rather idiosyncratic area for exploring these general issues. It may seem to be a special case, with the bewildering pace of change amplifying the difficulties. But at root, some of the trickiest issues are just specific instances of familiar and long-standing conundrums in the governance of science and technology. The basic challenge is how to weigh up, for a wide range of potential options, the various pros and cons, as viewed from divergent perspectives, and find a way to justify the best course of action on behalf of society as a whole. This is the central problem addressed by a number of techniques in CBA. On the face of it, synthetic biology seems to present just one more application of these well-established and self-confident prescriptive methods. But there do emerge several obstinate, even prohibitive, difficulties for CBA. Although they are well acknowledged by the scholarly literature on and around this topic, they are often sidelined in practice. Yet all are central to the case for applying the concept of precaution to a field like synthetic biology. This essay will briefly explore multicriteria mapping, an appraisal method for exploring contrasting perspectives on emerging technologies, as one practical way to address them. The essay focuses on MCM, not because it presents any sort of panacea for appraisal, but because it is illustrative of the concrete implications of precaution. Setting out even just one among potentially many practical alternative methods at least refutes the last-ditch argument that CBA is the only operational choice.


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  • Published

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The Hastings Center Report: Volume 48, Issue 51, Supplement: Governance of Emerging Technologies: Aligning Policy Analysis with the Public's Values

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Hastings, NY

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  • SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit Publications

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  • The Sussex Energy Group Publications

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