One model for improving biotechnical branding comes from standards organizations. After the industrial revolution, the rise of interchangeable tools and parts both demanded and facilitated standardization. Thanks to the increased precision of machining, it was possible to define parts at a granular level—the sizes and thread patterns of screws, bolts, and nuts, for example. Over time, standards bodies developed to guide and manage the creation of technologies so that they would interoperate. While public communication wasn’t a primary goal of standards organizations, their impact couldn’t help but embrace public interest and public knowledge, particularly as the technologies they sought to influence became more universal, and thereby more public. For example, the Universal Postal Union (UPU) coordinates international postal policies, relieving individual nations of the burden of negotiating individual treaties.
Computing is hardly a great model industry for clearly naming and explaining its apparatuses to the public. But information technology does offer a possible precedent for biotech, thanks to its widespread embrace of standards bodies as intermediaries between technical implementation and public use. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) develops standards for the web, for example, including the operation of HTML and CSS. The W3C standards are often adopted (or ignored) by the tech industry, but admittedly, its underlying systems remain largely invisible and unknown to the general public.
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), by contrast, is a professional association for electrical engineering that operates an internal standards association. IEEE standards not only help computer engineers develop interoperable products, but also facilitates the branding and marketing of those standards to the general public. The IEEE 802.3 standard, for example, is better known as Ethernet, a local-networking technology. Anyone who has purchased a wireless router may have encountered IEEE 802.11, the wireless networking specification known as Wi-Fi. Or take the near-range wireless communication method known as Bluetooth. While originally invented (and, aptly, named) by the Swedish telecom company Ericsson, it was standardized as IEEE 802.15.1, although it is now managed by a separate standards body.
To be sure, names like Ethernet, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth do obscure the underlying operation of those technologies. But that’s a matter for experts. In exchange, the public gets an abstraction that does a pretty good job naming and distinguishing three otherwise similar data networking technologies.
Standards organizations in health care and biotech do exist, but they are mostly focused on data interoperability. One exception is the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC). It operates a Standards Development Organization (SDO), which develops and manages standards for biomaterials. Last year, ATCC licensed the CRISPR-Cas9 technology, with an eye toward standardization. But ATCC is mostly interested in using CRISPR to generate standardized cell lines, rather than to help standardize the operation and use of the CRISPR technologies as such. And with problems arising—from implementation errors to potentially dangerous, engineered viruses—even scientists are beginning to recognize the downsides of a CRISPR wild west. It would be nice if there were a less laborious way for everyone else to participate in that conversation.