Is bioethics and biopolicy a high-leverage area?

A few thoughts:

  • Genetic engineering and other biological interventions may have very strong impact on human well-being.
  • This doesn’t necessarily imply that there is strong leverage – it could be the case that all technologies get developed anyway. This seems likely for object-level for most scientific and technological progress in the field.
  • Recent developments around CRISPR suggest to me that there is in fact a fair amount of path dependence in deployment of biotech (and potentially more so than in AI)
  • Ex. 1: If George Church is to be believed, gene drives are mature enough to be used for eradicating malaria, but political and ethical concerns are preventing the intervention.
  • Ex. 2: The Chinese scientist behind CRISPR experiment was widely criticized for his conduct and is likely to face negative consequences. I would expect this to happen even if the risk-benefit ratio were favorable for the babies.
  • Ex. 3: Smallpox vaccination has been known since Jenner (1780’s) but it took until 1980 for the WHO to take action on eradicating the disease. It is unclear whether there were technological capabilities for wide distribution in Africa significantly before then but it certainly seems likely that this intervention could have been delayed by a decade or more without Zhdanov’s advocacy.
  • Ex. 4: Louis Pasteur and Edward Jenner found experimental evidence for their respective medical innovations through experiments that wouldn’t fly in today’s bioethics.
  • It doesn’t seem crazy to imagine futures where uses of advanced biotechnologies become taboo.
  • Deployment that leads to massive biological inequality also doesn’t seem out of question. And of course there’s all the downside risk from engineered pathogens.
  • I’m particularly concerned about the failure to take advantage of the upside potential of biotech to reduce suffering and improve human health and well-being. This is because awareness of downside risks is in the air and I expect a lot more advances from the government and large philanthropists like OpenPhil. I don’t see similar levels of advocacy for preventing massive opportunity costs and expect critical bioethicists to be more vocal than the more optimistic ones (selection bias in the profession, positive interventions seeming fringe and utopian).
  • Taken together, this suggests to me that bioethics and science policy can quite dramatically influence how much humans benefit from progress in the biological sciences.

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