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Working Paper Series

Taking Self-Governance Seriously: Synthetic Biology’s Last, Best Chance to Improve Security


  • Stephen M. Maurer, Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley


  • Goldman School of Public Policy Working Paper: GSPP12-003 (November 2012)


Synthetic biologists have vigorously debated the need for community-wide biosecurity standards for the past decade. Despite this, the US government’s official response has been limited to weak and entirely voluntary Guidelines. This article describes attempts by journal editors, academic scientists, and commercial firms to organize private alternatives at the grassroots level. Private commercial standards, in particular, are significantly stronger than federal Guidelines and currently operate across more than eighty percent of the synthetic DNA industry. The paper generalizes from these examples by asking when strong private standards are both feasible and likely to produce outcomes that are comparably democratic to conventional agency regulation. It closes by describing interventions that government can use to promote and manage grassroots standards initiatives.

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Last updated on 06/07/2013