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This is not your father’s biosecurity: Experiments in novel security governance at the edge of innovation

I spent this week in Fukuoka, Japan at the World Social Science Forum, a gathering of national and international science academies and other research and professional bodies. At the invitation of the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP), I gave a talk on several experiments in biosecurity governance that are going on: the international Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition, the FBI’s Biological Countermeasures Unit, and various efforts around the governance of gene drives. I grounded my analysis in showing the limitations of current systems of governing security concerns in science. These systems, such as export/visa controls, secrecy classification, and intelligence gathering, have, over the last 75 years, turned their attention to the governance of security concerns in science (as well as a more traditional focus on technology and political knowledge), but they have limited applicability because of the assumptions they make about science, the state, and security. Making the opposite assumptions would lead us down very different paths of governing, and I showed how iGEM, the FBI, and some of the gene drive governance efforts are trying out these new governing options. How successful they are, however, will depend on a large extent on their ability to meld with, supplement, or replace security governance practices that have centuries of institutional inertia behind them.

My talk was part of an invited panel on the role of social sciences in biosecurity governance (and its assessment). The IAP and various national and regional academies have been very active in this space for over a decade, and have produced an impressive collection of reports on current and future issues the world needs to address to govern biosecurity issues in a responsive, adaptable, and socially and technically acceptable manner.

I would like to thank the InterAcademy Partnership for their invitation to present, and I hope my thoughts can be built upon by others.