Biosecurity discussions at the World Social Sciences Forum

Mon, October 08, 2018

Given the theme of the WSSF, ‘Security and Equality for Sustainable Futures’, and aware of the ongoing work of IAP in this area, the organizers invited IAP to ensure that the issue of biosecurity – a growing concern given the many recent and rapid advances in biotechnology – was given due attention.

The title of the IAP session was ‘Engaging key stakeholders in addressing biosecurity challenges: Insights from the social sciences’.

Sasha Kagansky (Far Eastern Federal University of Vladivostok, Russia, and GYA member) opened the session with an overview of some of the new biotechnologies that are causing concern in biosecurity discussions: techniques such as genome editing, synthetic biology, gain-of-function research and gene drives. Given that such technologies are becoming more accessible, he noted that terrorist groups rather than state-sponsored agencies could be the biggest threat, highlighting that this was a different situation to that surrounding the development of nuclear weapons.

Sue Meek (Australian National University) then discussed ‘Governance issues: Regulatory challenges and trade implications’. She highlighted the difference between biosafety (protection of human health and safety and the environment) and biosecurity (controlling access to sensitive materials, facilities and information); and discussed the challenges being posed to existing regulatory systems by recent advances in biotechnology, irrespective of whether oversight is triggered  by the process or technology used to develop a new product, or on the characteristics of the product itself. In considering trade implications, she cited several relevant international agreements that require signatories to introduce implementation mechanisms at a national level, noting that as biological entities do not respect national borders, inconsistent regulatory decision-making can lead to uncertainty and blockages. She stressed that while regulation is a key governance tool available to governments at both national and international levels of responsibility, a range of other tools are available that would be discussed by other panellists.

Robin Fears (EASAC Biosciences Programme) then reviewed some of the relevant regional and global work by academies. For example, he highlighted the IAP Statement on synthetic biology, and the guide for teaching responsible research practices, ‘Doing Global Science’. He then focused on the ‘Herrenhausen workshop’ convened by IAP, EASAC and the US National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) in October 2017. The more-than-100 workshop participants considered the benefits, security concerns, and prevention or mitigation of potential harm, as well as public engagement issues of genome editing. The outcome of the discussions was published in the report, ‘Assessing the Security Implications of Genome Editing Technology: Report of an international workshop’. In short, participants concluded that there is not “no risk” from these new technologies, but rather “no extra risk”, while recognising that uncertainty causes public concern.

Jo Husbands (Scholar, Board of Life Sciences, US National Research Council and NASEM) focused her presentation on policies and practices within the scientific community for research with dual use potential. She highlighted where behavioural and social sciences can contribute to addressing four specific challenges: (i) Identifying and assessing risk; (ii) Fostering scientists’ engagement in security; (iii) Promoting and sustaining a “culture of responsibility” in science; and (iv) Designing appropriate governance measures and strategies. For example, in the case of ‘Fostering scientists’ engagement in security’, she expressed the opinion that not enough is being done by the scientific community and proposed to use ideas from the ‘science of science communication’, turning the tables to treat scientists as a ‘public’ to understand how best to engage them.

‘This is not your “father’s” biosecurity’ was the deliberatively provocative title chosen by the final speaker in the session, Sam Weiss Evans (Tufts University, MIT and University of Cambridge), for his presentation. He argued that the traditional ways used by nation states to control security issues (expert and visa controls, secrecy classification and intelligence) are no longer appropriate now that access to the techniques has become more widespread. For example, the International Genetically Engineered Machines Competition (iGEM) must consider more than 300 institutions from more than 40 countries. Likewise, security can be considered more of a population and ecosystem issue, with threats coming from multiple areas, including nature (consider outbreaks such as SARS and Ebola, for example). “Security is very much one small part of much bigger shift in scientific accountability,” concluded Evans, “And trying to figure out how to make decisions on whether research should move forward is societal as much as technical.”

Pulling together the different presentations and discussion points raised by the audience, the session chair, Peter McGrath (IAP Coordinator) proposed the metaphor of a ‘sphere of activity’ where scientists are able to work, with limits imposed by a knowledgeable and engaged society. Parts of the sphere may perhaps contract when issues of concern arise, but can expand once trust is gained, and that continued public engagement by the scientific community is therefore crucial to maintain a balance and for scientists to have an ongoing understanding of their responsibilities.

IAP would like to thank ISC for the partial financial support that enabled the organization of this session.

IAP biosecurity session at WSSF 2018 in Fukuoka

The presentations can be downloaded here:

1. A. Kagansky: Introducing modern biotechnological techniques: Is biosecurity a new issue?

2. Sue Meek: Governance issues:  Regulatory challenges and trade implications

3. Robin Fears: Regional and global work by academies on biosecurity issues associated with emerging technologies in the biosciences

4. Jo Husbands: Promoting responsible science: Policies and practices within the scientific community for research with dual use potential

5. Sam Evans: This is not your “father’s” biosecurity

  • Jo Husbands was also an invited speaker in the plenary session on ‘New Forms of Conflict in a Global Age’.

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The World Social Sciences Forum (WSSF) took place in Fukuoka, Japan, on 25-28 September, organized by the International Science Council (ISC).

As well as this session on biosecurity, IAP was involved in two other sessions:

IAP Coordinator, Peter McGrath, was invited to speak on the Global Young Academy’s session on ‘Biodiversity and biomedicine: sustainability for human health’.

In addition, IAP joined with other Science International partners, TWAS and ISC, to present a session on ‘Supporting Refugee and Displaced Scientists: What role for the international scientific community?’