Standing Up for Science-Based Standards at the International Standards Organization (ISO)

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Members of U.S. International Standards Organization (ISO) Delegation enjoying a tour of Dublin Castle site of ISO annual meeting.
Members of U.S. International Standards Organization (ISO) Delegation enjoying a tour of Dublin Castle site of ISO annual meeting. [National Institute of Standards and Technology]

Standing Up for Science-Based Standards at the International Standards Organization (ISO)

I’ll never look at instructions for the everyday items I use the same way again after my recent visit to the International Standards Organization (ISO) headquarters.  For example, did you know – as part of international food safety protocols – there’s an international standard on the cooking time for pasta?  Yes, ISO 7304 sets out an estimation based on firmness, starch release, and even “liveliness.” 

Standards are all around us.  They guarantee a product’s safety, promote trade among businesses, and ensure the consumer a consistent product.  For example, the parts in smartphones are manufactured in various places all over the world but work together as a system when a smartphone is assembled.  If one of the manufacturers does not follow the standard protocol for a part, it will not work in the smartphone.  By using common standards, producers who work across industries can ensure a safe and reliable product – and such standards make it easier for U.S. exporters to sell their products globally.

I was part of the recent U.S. delegation to the ISO in Dublin, Ireland.  The other U.S. delegates were fellow scientists from the National Standards and Technology, USDA, and the technology industry.  Despite a variety of career backgrounds, the central theme among the group was a commitment to uphold standards based on science.  My main objective for the trip was to ensure the rules and regulations that are used to create standards for biotechnology are science-based.  As an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellow – a program that provides opportunities for scientists and engineers to learn policymaking first-hand – I was down in the trenches figuring out how standards are made.  

ISO is made up of 163 national standards setting bodies.  From cooking pasta to hi-tech products, ISO’s standards are world-class specifications for goods, services and systems, meant to ensure quality, safety and efficiency.  They are instrumental in facilitating international trade.  At the meeting,I was able to experience first-hand how ISO experts identify standardization needs and gaps, and collaborate with other organizations to avoid duplications and overlapping standardization activities.

One of my favorite parts of the ISO meeting involved biotechnology terminology and identifying required criteria for biobanks.  Biobanks are any large collection of biological material, which includes food, animal, human, and microbial organisms that can be used for research purposes, including biotechnology.  If you are a fan of fermented foods such as kimchi and kombucha, having a standard to regulate what strain of microorganisms from a biobank is used is important.

In order to make progress on standards the international bodies that comprise ISO have to work together as a team and align.  Experts from the U.S. delegation stepped up to help review and revise working documents to ensure consistent use of biotechnology terminology, to help establish universal requirements for biobanks, and to clarify the criteria for the use of biobanks across international bodies. They took on these tasks while making sure that decisions were based on sound science, and are therefore welcoming to U.S. innovation.   Participating in this meeting gave me the chance to see the pivotal role that science continues to play in decision making and how the U.S. works at such organizations to support science-based standards.  While standards themselves are not rocket science, they do make trade happen – and pasta more delicious.

About the AuthorWanida Lewis serves as an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Policy Technology Fellow in the Office of Agriculture Policy at the U.S. Department of State.

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Wanida Lewis

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Wanida Lewis serves as an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Policy Technology Fellow in the Office of Agriculture Policy at the U.S. Department of State.