We STILL need to talk about Synbio: New report on Synbio at the BTWC and CWC

New Report:

A Decade of Synthetic Biology in the Context of the Biological and Toxin Weapon Convention and the Chemical Weapon Convention

By Dr Brett Edwards (University of Bath) and Dr James Revill (University of Sussex)

Executive Summary

In recent years, synthetic biology has become symbolic of many of the challenges that advances in science and technology raise for the global regime prohibiting biological and chemical weapons. This has led to numerous technical reviews and governance initiatives directed at the field. However, there has been much less discussion about how experiences gained through these initiatives can help us understand existing capacities within the prohibition regime to respond to fundamental trends in innovation. Such reflection is important, as it allows us to question, in accessible and practical terms, how existing review processes might be better conceptualised and improved.

Within this paper we provide an introduction to synthetic biology as a techno-scientific field. This is followed by an introduction to a number of anticipatory security relevant initiatives which have been directed at this field. We then examine the way in which these developments have been addressed as part of international level review processes within the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and Biological and Toxins Weapon Convention (BTWC).

We find that existing discussions of synthetic biology in the context of the BTWC and CWC not only point to opportunities and challenges associated with the field of synthetic biology, but also the need to develop clearer shared conceptualisations of principles of good practice in the areas of technology assessment and horizon scanning at both the national and international level.

This leads us to make the following recommendations:

Recommendation 1: It is uncertain which process States Parties will decide upon for reviewing advances in S&T at the next BTWC review conference. However, it is apparent that there is a need for states to support processes which examine the security implications of fundamental trends which the field of synthetic biology has come to symbolise. This includes, but is not limited to: automation, digitization, de-skilling and rapid commercialisation. It is essential that such processes are linked to action; in terms of norm and capacity building as well as decision making.

Recommendation 2: In addition to reviewing the most recent scientific, technological and industrial developments in the context of the BTWC and CWC, there is a need to explore the value of the international community working together to consider, develop, and share information on approaches to technology horizon scanning and assessment as well as anticipatory governance in relation to concerns about the development of biological and chemical weapons. Such discussions could draw upon a wide range of institutional experiences in reviewing existing and foreseen security concerns associated with cutting-edge fields of innovation at local, national and international level. A good first step would be the convening of an international meeting which focused on these issues and brought together relevant practitioners, national level policy shapers and other stakeholders. Goals of such a meeting could include the identification and comparison of national styles of governance, as well as the identification of basic principles of good governance at local, national and international level. The field of synthetic biology may provide an accessible case study in this regard.

Full report available Policy Paper 10

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