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“Sorry James, this is not my cup of tea”

Posted by on July 3, 2013

Guest post by Dr James Revill, Research Fellow with the Harvard Sussex Program, SPRU, University of Sussex. The issues raised in James’ post will be discussed at our ‘Bioscience to Bioweapons’ Policy Lates event next Thursday, and on Twitter with the hashtag #PolicyLates.

The strategic use of disease in warfare has been subject to a long standing and cross-cultural taboo that condemns the hostile exploitation of biology as the act of a pariah. In short, biological weapons are simply not cricket. However, such disapproval is not fixed but context dependent and remains malleable to engineered erosion by governments and other groups . This is a particular concern in light of the twin challenge posed by the changing capacity and geography of bioscience and the evolving perceptions of security, including the perceived rise of terrorism and new wars in the 21st Century, on the other. Such circumstances have been converging to once again raise the spectre of biological weapons being assimilated in state (and potentially non-state) arsenals and the danger remains that “the more a proscribed weapon gains in military attractiveness, the more likely is its proscription to be ignored”.

It is not difficult to see how the biological weapons could gain military attractiveness in protracted, bitter new wars. Advances in numerous bioscience fields (such as neurobiology and synthetic biology) could be exploited in a number of different ways to more efficiently kill humans (or animals and plants), or manipulate vital human processes, such as inheritance,  locomotion and cognition. Yet the value of bioweapons is not limited to their physiological effects alone; bioweapons are frequently invisible, intangible and insipid, and such characteristics make them conducive to the ‘generation of terror’, or mass sociogenic illness.

Scientific developments also have the capacity to protect against bioweapons, something that generates less attention amongst the security community. Synthetic biology, for example has been lauded as a technological solution to a number of contemporary challenges including the detection and prevention of natural, or malicious diseases outbreaks (e.g. disease surveillance and vaccine production). Whilst there is a need for caution in accepting marketing claims of biotechnology companies at face value and a degree of tacit knowledge remains important, biotechnology nonetheless overwhelmingly offers great benefits to humanity.

Realising such benefits requires determining the directionality of innovation in biotechnology and steering life science research towards activities that reinforce, rather than undermine security, thereby staving off any future efforts to legitimise biological weapons by stealth or otherwise. Innovation is a social process determined by a number of factors including ‘individual creativity, collective ingenuity, economic priorities, cultural values, institutional interests, stakeholder negotiation, and the exercise of power’.

Bringing scientists on board  is key to tackling the challenge of dual use biology and steer research along a peace path;  a number of dual use education initiatives and train the trainer programs have been designed to achieve just this aim. However, such initiatives have frequently been limited variously by minimal top down support; the perceived irrelevance of seemingly abstract concerns of the security community (as one scientist remarked “Sorry James, this is not my cup of tea”); as well as sensitivities for some scientists who feel this is an attack on freedom of research. This problem is compounded by a disconnect between the two worlds of science and security. Both speak very different languages, have different understandings of science, and significantly differing interests. This is clearly illustrated by the recent bird flu controversy, which represented a missed opportunity for constructive engagement, but instead exacerbated divisions between the two communities, generated a confusing message for life scientists, and threatened to undermine a number of dual use educational initiatives.

Moving forward it will be important to breakdown these barriers and perhaps get security agencies thinking about the negative and positive applications of biotechnology; and life scientists thinking about the potential security implications of their work as they continue to build an understanding of fundamental life processes. After all: “with great power comes great responsibility”.

The views contained in this piece remain those of the author and should not be viewed as reflecting the views of the Harvard Sussex Program

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