By Alan Pearson, June 24, 2008
Both Jonathan Tucker and Pal Aas argue that we need an international organization devoted to managing the risks associated with biotechnology. According to Tucker, the organization would act to coordinate global action to mitigate biological risks, including establishing and enforcing minimum global standards for the safe and secure handling of dangerous pathogens and the oversight of dual-use research, assisting developing countries in building capacity to implement these standards, and more generally, bolstering the norm against the hostile use of biology. According to Aas, the organization would have to work closely with other organizations, such as the World Health Organization, which have important and relevant roles to play in mitigating the risk of accidental or deliberate disease outbreaks.
These are commonsense proposals, and I hope that they will find a commonsense champion in the next U.S. administration–regardless of who wins the election this November. Unfortunately, the dominant theme today within the segment of the U.S. foreign policy community that aims to prevent the use of the life sciences for hostile purposes seems to be that multilateral institutions are passé for dealing with this problem and that what we now need are global networks. Network approaches can certainly play an important role in bringing together diverse constituencies for joint action to reduce biological risks. But how can these networks be created and maintained for the long term without active and sustained support from governments? On the other hand, institutions provide a mechanism for sustained action and support.
It's time to move beyond the either-or terms of the current debate and the failed policies of the George W. Bush administration, which prioritizes nebulous networks and coalitions of the willing while denigrating institutions and sustained multilateral efforts to address global threats and risks. Both networks and institutions have an important role to play in mitigating biological risks, and the next administration should explore how both can best be built and reinforce one another. Preventing the use of biotechnology for hostile purposes is fundamentally in the global public good, and therefore a responsibility of governments around the world.