Risks from Biology: natural and engineered

Biosciences and biotechnologies provide a very clear example of powerful and potentially highly beneficial scientific and technological advances, which in some cases present extreme risks. For example, R&D efforts for disease control and prevention often need to include work with highly pathogenic material and carry biosafety and biosecurity risks, where an accidental or deliberate release could cause a significant global disease outbreak. We are also interested in natural pandemic risks and possible mitigation strategies, such as better surveillance, preparedness and funding structures, and application of technological advances to pandemic protection.

Extreme risks may also arise from other fields of application of biotechnologies – for example through ecological impacts of releases of novel organisms. The vast majority of advances don’t carry major risk or are appropriately regulated; CSER will attempt to dispel unjustified concern regarding such advances, while highlighting risks that need to be taken seriously.

While there is higher awareness of some key risks in this area than for some of the other technologies studied by CSER, there a significant gaps in understanding and achieving appropriate and robust policy and practitioner responses. We are developing several strands of research to address these issues.

Investigations and outputs in this area will take into consideration the significance of global economic, political and social dynamics that will have substantial influence on the effectiveness and acceptability of policy responses. For example efforts to address any global disease threat – whether of natural, accidental or deliberate origin – require close attention to disparities in vulnerabilities to disease threats, and health system capacities.