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Sometimes opposites attract: science and security communities can work well together

Posted by on July 9, 2013

Piers Millett at the Society of Biology Policy LatesBy Dr Piers Millet, Deputy Head, UN Biological Weapons Convention Implementation Support Unit. Piers will be speaking at this Thursdays’ Policy Lates debate on dual-use bioscience (#policylates).

I guess I am living embodiment that the title of this article is true. I trained originally as a microbiologist and am still a Chartered member of the Society of Biology. I still find life science exciting and am constantly blown away with the incredible things we can do and how science is slowly helping us chip away at global challenges. However, for the last decade I have spent more time with diplomats than scientists, working for an international security treaty dedicated to minimizing risks of our science being used for malicious ends whilst at the same time maximizing its use for peaceful purposes.

As I fly the flag of science in a policy setting, one of my pet peeves (which I hear more often than I should) is that science and security interests are mutually exclusive. I do not think they are. In fact, I know they are not because for several years I have been working closely with synthetic biologists and bioengineers in three different policy settings.

First, since 2009, the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) have been organising events on synthetic biology on the margins of formal treaty meetings to help ensure that policy makers know what the realities of the science are, the possible benefits it could unlock and the efforts its practitioners go to engage with the societal implications of their work.

Synthetic biologists have also helped efforts under the treaty to stay up to date with developments in the life sciences. Equally, where the BWC has considered the implications of synthetic biology, those reviews have been transmitted back to synthetic biologists by briefing their labs and meetings.

These collaborations have expanded from exchanges of information to collaborative work at a practical level. For example, for several years I have been an active member of the Safety Committee of the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition (iGEM), helping to ensure that the projects teams undertake are safe and secure for themselves, their colleagues, the communities they live in and the environment.

Second, is the working group on the convergence of biology and chemistry at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons,  which is tasked with looking at how the increasing overlap between different research fields  is impacting efforts to ban these weapons. This group has drawn heavily on expertise in the synthetic biology community (both professional and amateur) to look at what capacity convergence gives us. The input from these scientists directly influenced the outcome of a large, high level Chemical Weapons Convention review conference earlier this year (which was opened by the UN Secretary-General himself), creating international policy which recognizes the impact of convergence and explicitly embraces working more closely with partners in science and industry.

Third, was a World Health Organization meeting in February this year, which discussed research that has a potential dual-use to cause harm. This meeting, which drew heavily on earlier controversy about Avian Influenza gain-of-function studies, gathered together experts from the sciences, public health, ethics and security to think about how we can work together to minimise risks and maximise benefits of dual-use research.

I had the pleasure of chairing a session that dealt with advances in science and technology. Our panel, which had the greatest number of practicing scientists in the entire event, was so popular that not only did we overrun our timeslot, but they carved out an extra slot the next day for a reprise!

The synthetic biology cluster in this panel showcased exactly the sort of constructive relationship we need. It started with an excellent briefing on what we can currently use synthetic biology to do and what we might be able to do with it over the next few years. That was followed by exploring how the safety and security work at iGEM, which laid out how such efforts had helped scientists at every stage of their careers practically engage with dual-use issues, as well as how the community was putting in place capabilities to address security experts’ concerns. A representative of the gene synthesis industry also discussed industry-led initiatives to ensure biotech companies’ services are not misused.

Alongside colleagues from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the World Health Organization, my own unit will be exploring all three of these interactions in more depth at a workshop on the margins of SB6.0 being held at Imperial College London this week. If you are interested in learning more about how scientists and security folks have been working together, please do drop by.

At the Society of Biology’s Policy Lates event on Thursday 11th July I will be drawing insights from my experiences of these interactions and talking about how we build a constructive, rather than a destructive, relationship between science and security communities.

The views expressed in this post are my own and do not necessarily represent those of the Biological Weapons Convention, its States Parties or the Implementation Support Unit.


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