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.
- Engage leading experts in genomics, synthetic biology, biotechnology and other areas of concern to develop strategies for analysing and mitigating extreme risks.
- Spend periods embedded in laboratories and industrial centres in order to fully understand both the technologies and the cultures surrounding them.
- Focus on most effective ways of transforming scientific insights into clearly understood recommendations for government, as well as public understanding.
Key points of investigation for our work in this area include some that address understanding of the technological risks:
- Identification, assessment and tracking of technological developments and new sub-fields that may carry particularly significant risks, or produce a higher level of uncertainty about outcomes.
- Understanding of the significance of broader trends in these fields – such as technology needed for bio-science and biotech activities becoming cheaper and more widespread, necessary knowledge and expertise becoming more widely available, and impacts of convergence with other technological fields.
And others, which focus on informing responses for appropriate management of bio-risks:
- Identifying what evidence is needed and what values are appropriate to inform decisions that need to balance benefits and risks, particularly where vulnerabilities vary significantly and benefits tend to be unevenly distributed.
- Exploration of innovative approaches that might be developed to enable governance to keep pace with S&T advances.
- Exploration and testing of routes to sustained engagement between S&T and policy communities, particularly for the development and implementation of appropriate regulatory frameworks.
- Consideration of how information about risks should be communicated.
Many of these areas have strong links to sub-projects in our Managing Extreme Technological Risks Programme – for example work on developing cost-benefit analysis approaches, responsible innovation and the culture of science.]
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.