As has become increasingly evident in recent years, advances in biology are posing an acute and arguably unprecedented dilemma. The same basic science that could in principle be highly beneficial could also be enormously destructive, depending on how it is applied. Although the scope of actual consequence remains uncertain, the potential is clearly extraordinary with the health of individuals, the stability of societies and the viability of the global ecology all apparently at stake.
Since compelling good and appalling harm cannot be disentangled at the level of fundamental science, a burden of management is being imposed that human institutions are not currently prepared to handle. The dilemma itself has been exemplified in several widely noted experiments1 and professionally acknowledged in reports issued by the United States National Academies of Science (NAS) and by the British Royal Society. Not surprisingly, however, and perhaps inevitably, efforts to devise an effective response are still at an embryonic stage. The proposals separately advanced by the two scientific societies are directed at their own communities and are largely voluntary in character. Those are natural initial steps but would not alone provide robust global protection.
In an effort to encourage productive discussion of the problem and its implications, this monograph discusses an oversight process designed to bring independent scrutiny to bear throughout the world without exception on fundamental research activities that might plausibly generate massively destructive or otherwise highly dangerous consequences. The suggestion is that a mandatory, globally implemented process of that sort would provide the most obvious means of protecting against the dangers of advances in biology while also pursuing the benefits. The underlying principle of independent scrutiny is the central measure of protection used in other areas of major consequence, such as the handling of money, and it is reasonable to expect that principle will have to be actively applied to biology as well.
The monograph outlines an advanced oversight arrangement, provisionally labeled the Biological Research Security System (BRSS), which is designed to help prevent destructive applications of biology, whether inadvertent or deliberate. The arrangement is put forward with full realization that meaningful protection can only be achieved by imposing some constraint on freedom of action at the level of fundamental research, where individual autonomy has traditionally been highly valued for the best of reasons. Constraints of any sort on research will not be intrinsically welcome and will have to demonstrate that the protection provided justifies the costs entailed. A great deal of conceptual innovation, legal specification, institutional design and political accommodation would admittedly be required to establish such an oversight process, and there is very little precedent to work with. Because of the demands imposed and the inconvenience involved, the monograph concedes that human societies after due reflection might choose at least initially to accept lesser standards of protection and it discusses more limited incremental measures that might be undertaken. The central contention, however, is that the eventual outcome should be a fully considered choice and not the default result of inertia or neglect.
John Steinbruner is the Director of the Center for International Security Studies at Maryland.
Elisa D. Harris is a Senior Research Scholar at the Center.
Nancy Gallagher is the Associate Director for Research at the Center.
Stacy Okutani is a Graduate Fellow in the Advanced Methods of Cooperative Security Program.