4 August 2017

We’ve got to talk: The militarization of biotechnology

Brett Edwards

Brett Edwards

Brett Edwards is a lecturer at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom. His work focuses on...

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Debate about the security implications of cutting-edge biotechnology is afflicted with a fundamental blind spot—a lack of attention to growing military interest in the field. This blind spot is evident in discussions about, for example, gene-editing technology (in relation both to gene drives and to human modification). Such debate has tended to focus on the idea that research and technology might be directly misused by “the bad guys”—and has tended to ignore broader questions about how the ongoing militarization of cutting-edge fields in biology might contribute to insecurity.

 

Last year James Clapper, when he was US director of national intelligence, labelled emerging population-level genetic-modification techniques as potential weapons of mass destruction. A number of states, in the context of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, have in recent years voiced concerns about state investment into biotechnology. Yet ethical reviews of gene editing to date in the United States have barely touched upon concerns about growing military interest in cutting-edge biotech—as reflected in their absence from recent reports on both environmental and human modification biotechnology. Such omissions are in keeping with broad trends where US discussions about the potential for misusing biotechnology are concerned.

 

To be sure, the risk that benignly intended innovations might be directly misused by terrorists is a legitimate, if often overblown, security concern. But other issues merit concern as well. One such issue is the risk that military investment in biotechnology will adversely affect research priorities. Another is the possibility that military investment into defensive or public health projects by one state might be misinterpreted by other states as having offensive potential.

 

In the same vein, the scarcity of publicly available information about military research into biotechnology might fuel public distrust of valuable and well-intended work. It is clear, for example, that research into preventing, identifying, and treating infectious diseases by various militaries around the world will continue to provide broader spin-off benefits—but publics in some states might be unsure why military rather than public health institutions lead such work.

 

A path toward addressing these concerns has already been established by the synthetic biology community—especially in terms of its preemptive engagement with the security concerns that scientists entertain. However, even in this arena there has been a hesitance to address the issue of militarization.

 

Synthetic biology as a security laboratory. Synthetic biology is a field of scientific and technological development that has greatly extended humankind’s abilities to manipulate biological organisms and processes. While genetic modification techniques have existed since the 1970s, synthetic biology is allowing for much more ambitious projects—offering new ways of getting to grips with the complexity of biology and of developing a wide range of new technologies.

 

A watershed moment for this field was the First International Meeting of Synthetic Biology (SB 1.0), held at MIT in 2004. Central to the vision of the scientists involved was radically modifying naturally occurring organisms and processes through the application of engineering principles; the undertaking involved the convergence of a range of fields, including genetic engineering and computing. The appeal of the “synthetic biology” vision was broad—and a number of subfields emerged under the “synthetic biology” banner in both the United States and Europe. Private and public investors committed significant resources to the establishment of research centers and networks, as well as to the development and commercialization of foundational technologies such as gene synthesis. This investment contributed to a number of early successes and landmark initiatives.

 

The initiatives included the establishment of a digital “BioBricks” repository, which today contains the genetic sequences of some 20,000 standardized biological “parts,” such as proteins that are involved in gene-expression within bacteria. This repository was established as a means for scientists to assert discovery rights, while also allowing for the rapid sharing and reuse of these discoveries by others. These biological parts are developed and utilized by the synthetic biology research community and in an annual student competition that showcases both the potential applications of research in the field and the rate at which the technology is advancing. Last year’s winners included a team based at Imperial College London that developed a tool to help scientists engineer production systems using multiple types of cells, a German team working on biological tissue printing, and a Chinese team that developed a design to detect poisons in traditional medicines.

 

Since its inception, synthetic biology has been a darling of scientific journalism—which has made it challenging for civil society and regulators, when thinking through the field’s societal implications, to separate hype from reality. Synthetic biology has also become symbolic of deeper questions about the way that science is supported and governed. The issues have included broad transformations in how societies engage with innovation, an increased emphasis on the need to open up the innovation process to public scrutiny, and the need for science to be more responsive to public needs. Security concerns have been a consistent aspect of these broader debates.

 

In no small part, this is a consequence of synthetic biology’s having been established in the United States shortly after the 9/11 and Amerithrax attacks. At the time, regulators and funders in the United States were twitchy about the actual and perceived security concerns surrounding this fledgling field. The National Science Foundation, a major early investor in synthetic biology, set engagement with biosecurity concerns as a prerequisite for funding. The FBI, following through on recommendations by a blue-ribbon biosecurity board on synthetic biology, has also taken a proactive approach to reaching out to the community. The lead agent on this issue, Edward You, was recently profiled by MIT Technology Review as “America’s Top Bioterror Cop.”

 

Another key factor in the synthetic biology community’s continued engagement with security issues has been the commitment of prominent scientists. Stanford University bioengineering professor Drew Endy, who has been involved in numerous reviews of the field, has also been a leading advocate for biosecurity engagement by the next generation of synthetic biologists. Endy established the annual iGEM competition (the acronym stands for “international genetically engineered machine”). This team competition for students includes a biosecurity review process providing young scientists an opportunity to consider the potential security implications of their work. Harvard University synthetic biologist George Church has also been a notable contributor on these issues. His public provocations over the years have repeatedly kick-started public debate. In addition, a number of social scientists have formed enduring professional relationships with practitioners of synthetic biology—and much of their work has focused on changing the way that scientists engage with potential risks and with the public.

 

The synthetic biology community has been central to the most intensive debate about the misuse of civilian biotechnology ever seen—a debate that has been under way since at least 2003. Engagement by scientists, civil society, funders, and regulators has spurred a raft of technology assessment initiatives and regulatory reviews in both the United States and Europe. In addition, the integration of ethical and security review into iGEM, the annual undergraduate competition, has sensitized a generation of scientists to questions about their societal roles. Such initiatives have also helped raise the bar for some newer fields. Xenobiology, for example—originally a subfield ­­of synthetic biology—is currently seeking to establish its own disciplinary identity, and security implications are already being discussed as that field’s research agenda is set. The security engagement displayed by the synthetic biology community appears to be catching.

 

At the same time, it’s important to remember the limitations that such communities face. Scientists envision and design techno-scientific fields—but they are subject to the whims of national-level funders and regulators. It’s also very difficult for scientists to control how a technology will be used and commodified once “the cat is out of the lab.” This was illustrated at a recent synthetic biology meeting in Singapore. Endy, in his opening remarks, presented an egalitarian vision for future industrialization of synthetic biology technologies. But Randal J. Kirk, chairman of the biotech firm Intrexon (the main industry sponsor of the conference), delivered a slick presentation that provided a much more corporate vision of the field’s future. This was a reminder of the central role that the market will play in synthetic biology investment—and of the role that industry will increasingly play in shaping regulation and public understanding of this area of biotechnology.

 

Jane Calvert, a University of Edinburgh social scientist who has been working in synthetic biology for over a decade, argued at the Singapore meeting that the field is closing as a creative space—that the parameters of success are narrowing around what is commercially viable. Military involvement in synthetic biology presents similar dynamics—and discussions of this issue throughout biotechnology need to be promoted and internationalized. Military involvement in technology is not a bad thing—and it is also inevitable. Still, legitimate concerns surround the ability of the military sector to skew research priorities. And of course, military involvement could also signal attempts to harness new biotechnology for hostile purposes. In those nations leading the way in terms of innovation, scientists might need to help ensure greater transparency regarding the scope and purposes of military investment in their fields.

 

Work in synthetic biology has created a community of scientists sensitized to such issues and willing to discuss them. The focus of discussion, however, needs to broaden beyond the national-level security preoccupations that currently dominate. One step in this direction would be to establish international dialogue among scientists specifically on the issue of biotechnology militarization. Such debates should not be limited to the existing preoccupation with pathogens, but rather should cover broader areas of military investment. This sort of dialogue might allow shared principles regarding state investment in biotechnology to be identified and articulated—principles that would both guide research priorities and establish hard limits about what is permissible. Such discussions could draw upon relevant principles in international human rights, humanitarian, and arms control law—including, but not limited to, treaties specifically dealing with biological, chemical, and environmental warfare. Such an outcome would give scientists a louder voice in conversations about military involvement in biotechnology—while also reducing the stigma associated with invaluable military research and reinforcing the stigma against the weaponization of biotechnology.