The World Needs the U.S. to Lead on Genetic Engineering

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Human-genetic engineering has gone from science fiction to science fact — at least, if you believe the reports coming out of China. A team at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, led by researcher He Jiankui, said it had altered the genes of twin girls while in the womb, making them more resistant to AIDS. Importantly, the scientists allegedly used Crispr, the new technique that many believe will make genetic engineering cheap and widespread.

Before rushing to declare that the world has changed, of course, the work must be verified. Chinese academia is notorious for widespread fraud, and even in far more reputable countries, big claims of biotech breakthroughs have been fabricated in the past. The Chinese government is investigating whether He’s innovation — which was announced on YouTube instead of published in a scientific journal — is real.

But even in the event that these genetically engineered superbabies turn out to be a hoax, it seems highly likely that real Crispr kids are not far behind. That means policy makers need to be thinking about how to deal with this revolutionary new technology — not just the ethics, but also the economics.

Ethically, many will likely recoil from the idea of editing kids to make them healthier — not to mention stronger, smarter or otherwise more capable. Even if genetic engineering is only used to cure or prevent disease, a substantial minority of Americans — probably driven by religious concerns — is opposed to the idea. When it comes to less life-threatening cases, like making a person smarter, a large majority disapprove:

The World Needs the U.S. to Lead on Genetic Engineering

Those opinions might change over time. If people’s intelligence really could be improved safely and reliably, without serious side effects, it would give people a helpful productivity boost. And if workers in China or other countries began boosting their productivity levels this way — as it seems certain they would — it would be hard for Americans to compete unless they followed suit.

But those fearful of a future where everyone is forced to engineer their kids to be geniuses in order to keep up with the Chinese should calm down, because intelligence enhancement really is likely to remain science fiction for quite a while. There are probably thousands of genes that each exert a minuscule influence on cognitive ability, and it’s vanishingly unlikely that humans could alter that many of their genes without severe and undesirable side effects.

My guess is that reductions in the genetic predilection for anxiety and depression will be a much more feasible productivity-booster, in addition to alleviating vast amounts of human suffering. Reducing mental illnesses like schizophrenia may also be possible. Antidepressant-, anti-anxiety- and antipsychotic-drug use is already widespread, so it seems reasonably possible that genetics will eventually be accepted as an additional treatment. If so, national output and well-being will both improve.

There’s another reason for the U.S. not to get left behind in genetic engineering — it has the potential to be a huge consumer market. Besides curing diseases and improving mental health and productivity, genetic engineering probably will be used for cosmetic purposes. Some fraction of people around the world will want to give their kids a couple extra inches of height, a bit of extra strength or a different hair color to gain an edge in the job market, the dating market or just for pure aesthetics.

Whichever companies end up providing these services to people who want them — as well as ancillary services such as consulting, screening and monitoring — will make huge amounts of money. The patents on various cutting-edge techniques will be worth many billions of dollars. If the U.S. shies away from developing genetic-engineering technology, these riches will flow to China, or to whatever other countries seize the technological edge.

That’s why, despite all the ethical concerns, it’s important for the U.S. government to push ahead with research on human-genetic engineering. China’s government, with its considerable disregard for safety, privacy and ethics, is likely to make rapid initial advances, but the U.S. can still win the race in the long run. If American genetic-engineering research proceeds with strict safety and privacy controls, and with vigorous and open debate about the ethics of various genetic technologies, it’s likely that American companies will be the ones to eventually bring safe, reliable products to market.

Dystopian outcomes are also less likely with the U.S. at the helm. China, which even now is ramping up its human-rights violations and its all-encompassing surveillance state, may decide to try to genetically re-engineer its population for purposes of social control. That is a terrifying prospect, and even more terrifying if other countries decide they need to follow suit. But the U.S. can show the world alternative uses for genetic modification, based on freedom, justice, and improved health and happiness.

Like it or not, genetic-engineering technology is out of the bag. The human race is set to change, and it’s up to the free world to make sure it manages it in a healthy rather than a horrifying way.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.