In May of 2017, Samira Kiani found herself in a San Diego hotel ballroom surrounded by some of the CRISPR field’s brightest shining stars. Jennifer Doudna, George Church, and others were all there at the behest of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to talk about gene drives — a CRISPR-enabled technology that forces a genetic trait through a population at evolutionary warp speed — and what they as scientists could do to build guardrails around them. Later that summer, DARPA would devote $65 million to funding some of these efforts, through its Safe Genes program.
Kiani, a geneticist at the Arizona State University who had worked with Church to advance CRISPR-based genetic circuits while a postdoc at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was relieved to see such standout scientists taking the safety and controllability of these technologies seriously. But as the months went by, she realized that the labor they were doing was largely confined to their laboratories. Although talk that day in May had centered around the need for societies to be informed about how fast this science was moving, no one was doing the work of starting a public dialogue.
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