05/30/2013 - 16:18

Intelligent assessment: Putting emerging biotechnology threats in context

Kathleen M. Vogel

Kathleen M. Vogel is an associate professor at Cornell University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Science and Technology Studies and the Judith Reppy Institute for...

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One of the problems with assessing the emerging threats from advances in biotechnology and the life sciences is that there are two competing narratives for understanding biotechnology development: one based on the notion of a biotech revolution and the other based on biotech evolution. The biotech revolution is a dystopian tale in which scientific advances lead to rapid changes in biotechnology, its applications, and its potential threats. The biotech evolution, however, describes slower and more complex trajectories for biotechnology development and threats. These two narratives are based on different assumptions and analytic methods, which lead to fundamentally different conclusions. The US intelligence and policy communities use the biotech revolution story line to make sense of today’s bioweapons threats, but this approach fails to reflect the complex social, economic, scientific, and technical factors that shape biotechnology and life science developments. The author argues that more critical perspectives on biotechnology are needed in order to improve intelligence assessments of present and future bioweapons threats and policy regarding them.