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Genomics Forum · Research

Genomics and Biosecurity

Jonathan Suk

Start date

2005-03-01

Contact

Jonathan Suk - Since left the Forum

Please contact: forum@genomicsnetwork.ac.uk

Background

International concern over the threat of naturally occurring infectious diseases as well as the potential malevolent use of biological knowledge, either through state-sponsored bioweapon development or through bioterrorism, has dramatically increased in recent years. The boundary between ‘bioweapon’ and ‘biodefence’ has blurred amidst a political environment in which traditional notions of national and global security have broadened so as to now also include ‘biosecurity’.

Numerous actors have pursued initiatives designed to enhance global biosecurity by mitigating the potential misuse of biological knowledge. At the international level, several actors have called for a strengthening of the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), which currently lacks a mechanism for confirming state adherence to the Convention. A strengthened BTWC is not expected to emerge from the upcoming 6th Review Conference, however, partially because the US has decided to pursue a unilateral rather than multilateral agenda. Perhaps owing to this reason, a variety of additional measures have been explored, each with the aim of preventing the misuse of biological knowledge. National governments, including the UK, and other relevant actors (e.g. NGOs, professional organizations, OECD, WHO) have pursued mechanisms such as professional codes of conduct, export and biosecurity controls, and even the censorship of scientific articles with findings that could be applicable to the development biological weapons.

Each of these initiatives could significantly alter the trajectory of global biomedical and genomic research, and each initiative embodies a range of technological and political expectations and commitments.

Aims

This work programme will seek to critically examine the emergence of the current political environment, in which political actors have placed an increased emphasis on ‘biosecurity’, as well as a detailed analysis of the particular policies and policy processes emerging from this environment. In particular, this work programme will seek to answer the following questions:

  • How can the current governance landscape for bioweapons/biosecurity be contextualized?
  • How is the threat to biosecuriy from biowarfare/bioterrorism being perceived by key policy actors? Are advances in genomics altering this perception?
  • How might governance tools designed to enhance biosecurity impact the trajectory of genomics research, and vice-versa?
  • In exploring these and similar questions, what can be contributed to broader debates on the relationship between science and its governance by global and national governments?

Methods

An initital scoping meeting, Genomics and Bioweapons, Emerging Governance Issues was held in Edinburgh on 2 February, 2006.

A high-level workshop was held in Edinburgh from 13-14 November, 2006. This workshop gathered together 30 participants to discuss the governance of bioweapons/biosecurity, the possible implications to biomedical Research & Development as well as science and its governance more generally. Participants' backgrounds ranged from the OECD to academia and civil society organisations, with a mixture of scientists, social scientists and policy-makers.

Publications

Deconstructing the 1918 Flu Genome (2006), by Jonathan Suk, In: ESRC Genomics Network Newsletter, Issue 4, September 2006.

Genomics, Pathogens and Global Health: Governing the Risks and Benefits (2005) by Jonathan Suk