Do U.S. biodefense efforts need systems analysis?

By Malcolm Dando | May 18, 2009

As a young biologist I was offered a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan. When I arrived in the United States I considered my previous work on the characteristics of neuronal circuits and decided to examine it in a broader context. This spurred me to begin reading all I could find on systems analysis–the assessment of large, complex events or structures through the examination of their constituents. Although the only writings of systems analysis I found satisfactory were those of Sir Geoffrey Vickers, I could not shake this interest. I returned to Britain only to spend six years in a university operational research department.

The part of Vickers’s work I recall liking the most was his concept that within a system an individual observer’s ability to appreciate the world was influenced by his or her value system and, in turn, the real world influenced the development of his or her value system. If this did not force the individual to reflect on his or her relationships within the system, it at least encouraged this kind of reflection. These contributions on the social characteristics of systems analysis seemed clear–if subtle–to me as I read two recent papers.

Even essentially sympathetic foreign observers do not or cannot differentiate between Defense Department–funded biodefense and the whole of U.S. biodefense funding.”

The first was an April backgrounder from the Heritage Foundation titled “Complex Systems Analysis–A Necessary Tool for Homeland Security.” The second was a 2008 paper, “A Biomedical Military-Industrial Complex?” by Cornell University professor Judith Reppy that was published in Technovation. The paper asked whether the vast increase in U.S. biodefense funding has created a biomedical military-industrial complex and therefore produced distorted research work in the life sciences.

In the Heritage Foundation paper, the authors argue that complex systems are extremely difficult to understand, but they also suggest that if “used properly, complex systems analysis can help . . . by alerting policy makers to unexpected outcomes of interactions between discrete parts of a system, thereby allowing them to anticipate and hedge against potential future national security threats.” Moreover, they argue that over the past decade advances in mathematics and computer simulation have allowed complex systems analysis to be employed in studies of human behavior in “physical, economic and social systems.”

Of particular note, given my interest in biodefense, was their suggestion that the Department of Homeland Security become a national leader in developing and using complex systems analyses. They specifically recommend that the department’s three federally funded research and development centers, including the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center, be required to develop expertise in complex systems analysis and serve as the department’s center of excellence in this field. This move would give credence to the assertion that modeling and scenario-based applications will allow policy makers to “consider optimal protection, response, and consequence-management strategies.”

The Heritage Foundation report’s conclusions rang true, but I couldn’t help but think that a center of excellence in complex systems analysis was in need of analysis itself. I considered that Reppy initially draws on President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1961 warning “to guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex” and “[t]he prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money.” Given federal security agencies’ near-tripling of funding for bioprevention, the Department of Health and Social Services’ near-thousand-fold increase, and the addition of some half-dozen new scientific advisory boards dealing with biological developments and national security, Reppy asks “whether these changes can rightly be characterized as a biomedical military-industrial complex.”

After briefly describing the origins of the idea of a military-industrial complex–she identifies the hallmarks of such a system as budgetary patterns; government to private sector migration; corporate contributions to political campaigns; and social networks between universities, defense officials, and defense corporations–Reppy assesses whether there is now a biomedical military-industrial complex. Her conclusion is mixed. She believes that some of what she sees in the biomedical sciences looks rather like a traditional military-industrial complex. For example, she states, “By some measures–size of lobbying efforts and university involvement–it may well be larger than the [complex] involving traditional defense companies.” But, in her view, it is too difficult to draw a firm conclusion: “With respect to funding, relevant government agencies, and industry involvement [it] is still too chaotic to merit the [military-industrial complex] label.” Thus, we will have to wait for more data to decide. That being said, Reppy argues that it is difficult to imagine the vast input of defense dollars not affecting U.S. life science work as researchers drawn into the field “will constitute a pressure group for continued funding in their new specialities,” including biotechnologies.

Past examples of such patterns abound. In a 1989 contribution to Hans Günter Brauch’s Military Technology, Armament Dynamics and Disarmament, University of Sussex scholar Julian Perry Robinson noted that prior to World War I, chemical warfare was under study in a number of countries but was of little interest to the military. After the war, however, chemical weapons came to be recognized as “conventional” and were integrated into military systems. As he expressed it, “[t]hey were now . . . firmly caught up in that process of ‘assimilation’ which is discernible in the history of most technologies, civil as well as military.”

If what Reppy describes is not a biomedical military-industrial complex, is it a process of assimilation of the life sciences into the defense sector? It is no idle question. Even essentially sympathetic foreign observers do not or cannot differentiate between Defense Department–funded biodefense and the whole of U.S. biodefense funding. Indeed, in his 2008 International Affairs article, Perry Robinson expressed his concerns over the “creeping legitimization” of a new class of non-WMD chemical and biological weapons “whose possession may therefore appear desirable, and whose constraint by treaty may thus come to seem a liability.” That is a large topic perhaps best left for another day, but it emphasized for me the role of the Heritage Foundation’s paper in the debate on systems analysis for U.S. security. If Homeland Security is to grow centers of excellence in complex systems analysis, then it should examine the points Reppy raises, include Geoffrey Vickers in its curriculum, and incorporate a reflexive analysis of itself as a component of the center.

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