Embrace Experimentation in Biosecurity Governance

Biological science and its applications are rapidly evolving, and to keep up with emerging security concerns, governance of biosecurity applications should evolve as well. In a Policy Forum, colleagues and I argue for rethinking biosecurity governance – moving beyond assuming the threats are known, as an example – and making governance efforts more experimental. We loosely define biosecurity governance as the policies and processes designed to prevent or deter misuse of biological science and technology. Due to many factors, existing biosecurity processes are being pushed to their limits. Processes related to recognition and handling of natural biological threats like COVID-19 are but one example.

One of the biggest lessons we can learn from the current pandemic is the need to learn lessons without a pandemic. We can do that by taking a more experimental approach to biosecurity and health security governance, periodically testing and reassessing basic assumptions we are making about science, security, and society.

Traditional approaches have focused mostly on risk management and the malicious exploitation of research. These approaches assume the threats are known and able to be addressed. However, many recent advancements in the biological sciences, including the development of powerful new technologies like CRISPR and synthetic genomics, have created previously unknown and poorly understood security concerns. We demonstrate how reframing biosecurity governance as an experiment in itself focuses attention on ways to systematically evaluate the effectiveness and limitations of current and future solutions to biosecurity issues.

Evans, Sam Weiss, Jacob Beal, Kavita Berger, Diederik A. Bleijs, Alessia Cagnetti, Francesca Ceroni, Gerald L. Epstein, Natàlia Garcia-Reyero, David R. Gillum, Graeme Harkess, Nathan J. Hillson, Petra A. M. Hogervorst, Jacob L. Jordan, Geneviève Lacroix, Rebecca Moritz, Seán S. ÓhÉigeartaigh, Megan J. Palmer, Mark W. J. van Passel (2020) “Embrace Experimentation in Biosecurity Governance.” Science 368(6487). 138-140.

Participants at the 2019 Novel Practices in Biosecurity Governance at the University of Cambridge (Photo: Judith Weik)

Background

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a significant disconnect between the on-the-ground understanding of the implementation of various biosecurity governance mechanisms and the top level design process for those mechanisms. In the summer of 2019, I convened a workshop on Novel Practices in Biosecurity Governance through the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) and the Biosecurity Research Initiative at St. Catharine’s (BioRISC) to discuss these issues with 40 biosecurity practitioners and analysts, largely from the US and EU. The guiding ideas was that, over the last decade, groups of practitioners have experimented with new ways of understanding when an area of biology should become subject to safety and security governance, and just what the governance should look like. We currently lack, however, a capacity to meaningfully share and learn from these experiments in identifying and governing novel safety and security concerns.

This paper is an outgrowth of that workshop, and all of the authors are grateful to the other participants for their thoughts and time. I certainly know that my own views on this topic have advanced tremendously through conversations will all my co-authors and the other workshop participants.