Prometheus or Pandora – Addressing the Biotechnology Issue

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Biotechnology, the newest way in which man seeks to tease from nature her secrets so as to improve his condition, is under intense scrutiny today. Some believe that biotechnology, like other forms of entrepreneurial activity, is best left to the decentralized forces of a free society. Others believe that such chaotic, unplanned behavior would be irresponsible—the risks are too serious to forgo a social review function. This debate is not new. As so often the case, the Greeks told the story earlier – and in many ways better – than has anyone yet in the modern policy debate.

The future of biotechnology is not assured – the battle is now underway.

The mythical account of how Prometheus brought technology to mankind and, for his efforts, was condemned by the status quo forces (Zeus, in this case) to endless torment, illustrates well the value of intellectual entrepreneurship and the opposition to it (often effective) by reactionary forces.Biotechnology’s value is obvious. Without the slow accumulation of wisdom which allowed us to victory. For most of mankind’s history and indeed in most parts of the world today, those forces opposing change dominate the process. The future of biotechnology is not assured – the battle is now underway.

Those seeking to shackle biotechnology can also find their rationale in our mythical tradition. Pandora, we may recall, illustrates well the perceived risks that intellectual curiosity and undisciplined explorations may create.

Modern public policy thus faces a choice that has recurred throughout history. Who shall determine what “boxes” will be opened? My presentation argues that such choices are best made by individuals held fully accountable for their actions, that a political approach to risk management is not only costly but risky to mankind’s safety. That viewpoint – that superior outcomes are likely in a world in which individuals have both authority and responsibility – is not the dominant view today. Most now believe that risks are handled badly in the absence of political restraints and thus we must impose “wise” political regulation over the biotech field.

To develop my argument, I consider the incentives facing private and political risk management arrangements in the agricultural biotechnology area. Mistakes are, of course, inevitable in either a private or political system. One may elect to open a box containing a major advance in human health. We wish to avoid thalidomide and to approve penicillin. Either choice has major consequences: the false approval will endanger human life, some may die and a public outcry is likely. False disapproval has similar human health consequences, people will die that might have lived had the new knowledge been more readily available.

Note the way that a political institution will weigh these two forms of risk. A false approval ill receives close attention. The door will have been opened and a tiger let loose and the agency is likely to be severely criticized for its mistake. Hearings are likely and the ability of that agency to open future doors is likely to be curtailed. More study, of the agency to open future doors is likely to be curtailed. More study, more rigidity, it will be argued, might have headed off this disaster. Consider how that same group is likely to weigh the risks associated with false disapproval. First, we might note that there is far less chance of a public outcry. The population placed at greater risk under this mistaken policy may well be unaware of its risk. Those who die and their loved ones may never know that they died unnecessarily. That is, political institutions consider the risks associated with publicized deaths far more heavily than similar deaths that receive less attention. The potential reduction in heart attack, cancer or AIDS deaths will be weighed less heavily than will the potential increase in deaths from a new drug or process.

This distortion in the way safety is perceived in the political environment is serious. Political risk management of agricultural lower the need for energy drilling, chemical fertilizer and activities, storage and spoilage concerns – all of which have safety as well as economic consequences. These gains are at risk if we continue to expand the political control over the evolutions of biotechnology.

What is the alternative? Certainly, we must admit that private developers will also err. A firm will consider the risks of false approval to the extent that liability law targets responsibility and recognizes a cause-and-effect rule of evidence, and to the extent that the company sees value in maintaining its reputation in the marketplace. The firm will consider the costs of false disapproval because of the lost profits the denial of superior product from the marketplace will entail.

Conceptually, therefore, one might expect that a private decision model would make for safer decisions. That position is argued in my comment and buttressed by empirical evidence form various politicized risk restricting and expanding the political role in the biotech area are inappropriate, counterproductive to the advancement of human health and likely to cripple an industry in which the U.S. now enjoys an ephemeral lead.