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Synthetic Biology’s Defence Dollars: Signals and Perceptions by Dr. Filippa Lentzos

by Dr. Filippa Lentzos, King’s College London

Synthetic biology is swimming in defense dollars. The most recent figures available on US trends in synthetic biology research funding indicate that two thirds of the $200 million invested in 2014 came from the Department of Defense or its research agency DARPA. While many scientists see military money as just another source of funding on par with NIH or NSF funding—after all, the majority of the funds are for basic science without security classification and publication restrictions—there are good reasons not to brush it off. One of these is the perception of the field to outsiders.

From an international security perspective, the extensive influx of military funding can be perceived as threatening to analysts in other countries following these developments. The US Department of Defense declared just over $655 million on national biodefence research in 2014. Synthetic biology research appears, therefore, to make up about a fifth of the biodefence budget. DARPA aims not only to develop radically new, game-changing technologies for national security in order to maintain US technological supremacy, it also aims to create technological surprise for its enemies. Synthetic biology, and its “leveraging of biotechnology to develop new organisms with unprecedented behaviors and capabilities” has been identified as “among the most promising for future major capabilities.” According to DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar “Biology is nature’s ultimate innovator, and any agency that hangs its hat on innovation would be foolish not to look to this master of networked complexity for inspiration and solutions.”

Part of the concern for security analysts looking in at the rapidly developing field of synthetic biology is about theCalgary2014_BiologicalWeaponsConventionButton military agenda behind the copious funding, and the purpose, or alternate purposes, to which the technology and its applications might be put. One of these is biological weapons development. The development, production and stockpiling of biological weapons are prohibited under the Biological Weapons Convention, but the international treaty does not prevent states conducting research activities for peaceful or defensive purposes. However, distinguishing between permitted and prohibited activities is difficult at the level of basic biological research where the same techniques used to gain insight and understanding about fundamental life processes for the benefit of human health and welfare may also be used in war—and the fine line between permitted defence work and non-permitted offensive work is becoming increasingly blurred with the possibilities that advances in the life sciences afford.

For instance, as Rob Carlson and Daniel Grushkin have pointed out, the US military’s push for green explosives that use microbes designed to eliminate the heavy-metal and toxic solvents in conventional explosives production seems on the surface “like a project that we might dismiss as benign, even beneficial, if a little incongruous.” But the application treads a step closer to the fine line between permitted defence work and non-permitted offensive work. “Because explosive-producing microbes in themselves would not be weapons, they would not appear to violate the Convention. That said, as part of the production chain and a means of making weapons components, they wouldn’t qualify as having ‘peaceful purposes,’ either.

Worryingly, bioweapons development is also getting easier. This was the central message from the global network of science academies to the national security delegations assembled at the United Nations in Geneva last week. The science academies’ report to the Biological Weapons Convention—Implications of advances in science and technology—asserts that technological barriers to acquiring and using biological weapons have been significantly eroded over the last five years. It is now easier to acquire both natural and synthetic pathogens, and to enhance and optimize them for specific purposes, including for use in biological weapons. It is easier to produce biological agents with 3D printing fabricating critical lab equipment, and biosynthesis and bio-based production, scaffolds and ‘bioharming’ accelerating the speed and yield of production. Less space and time is now required for scale up, and it is easier to conceal nefarious activities. Advances in nanotechnology and aerobiology, along with the use of chemical co-factors to increase uptake and formulations to improve absorption from the gastro-intestinal tract, are making the dispersal and delivery of biological agents easier. In short, scientific advances “could facilitate almost every step of a biological weapons programme.”

The silver lining is that many of the cutting edge developments are, for now at least, expensive and complicated to acquire and deploy successfully, and that making use of them for bioweapons development “probably require the resources of a state.” History is encouraging here. Over the forty-year life span of the Biological Weapons Convention, there has been no state party use of biological weapons. But we cannot rely on biological weapons not being used in the future. The likelihood that biological weapons will be used is NOT zero, even though many countries that once pursued such weapons have long since abandoned them.

It is also pertinent to bear in mind that although 20th century military use of biological weapons was envisioned primarily as strategic, and came to rest on delivery by bomb, missile or large area spray, there were also scientists and military planners that seriously entertained other ideas, such as tactical use and sabotage. Potential biological weapons use today must not necessarily be thought of as it was in the 20th century, and biological weapons must not be permitted to have any military traction in even the smallest subset of contemporary conflicts.

It is notable that in another major emerging field of life sciences research the issue of military misuse is a pervasive concern. Like synthetic biology, neurobiology has seen an exponential increase of output, advancing understanding of neural network responses associated with behaviours such as anger and aggression, and with physiological conditions such as addiction, fear and narcolepsy. Neural networks can now be manipulated to induce some of these states and work has begun to translate these findings to non-human primate models. Neuromorphic and neurorobotic technologies have been identified as some of the most likely areas to give rise to military applications, in autonomous or semi-autonomous weapons systems, and as controllers for such systems—and efforts are underway in the European Human Brain Project “to make the public aware of potential abuses and to debate the way new technologies should be regulated.” Additionally, the European Human Brain Project has also made an explicit commitment NOT to take funds from the military or to develop applications with military objectives.

Synthetic biologists must equally open up their science to public debate about its potential applications in contemporary conflicts. The field needs more opinion shapers like Rob Carlson and Daniel Grushkin to step forward, to identify projects, technologies and developments within their science that have possible or likely military applications, and to firmly acknowledge that “not all military projects are worth their price—morally, financially, or otherwise .” Perceptions and signals are important in international relations too, and it would be a mistake to underrate the significance of psychology in keeping the biological weapons treaty regime strong. Attitudes, expectations, confidence and reinforcement are essential to sustained global biological disarmament and non-proliferation.

Synthetic biologists directly funded by the Department of Defense or DARPA have a special responsibility to actively engage with the military and defence industries against the abuse of their science. The synthetic biology community must speak with a clear voice, reaffirming that biological weapons are wholly unacceptable and that the use of biotechnology in war is, as the Biological Weapons Convention states, “repugnant to the conscience of mankind.”

Dr Filippa Lentzos is a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine, King’s College London. She is a sociologist exploring the social, political and security aspects of the life sciences. She is particularly interested in contemporary and historical understandings of the threat of biological weapons, bioterrorism and the strategic use of infection in conflict. For more information you can visit her website or you can follow her on twitter @FilippaLentzos.

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