Anticipating Emerging Biotechnology Threats –A Case Study of CRISPR Dr Kathleen Vogel
ISRU Work In Progress Seminar 31.10.2018
On Wednesday 31st October,the ISRU welcomed Dr KathleenVogel of the University of Maryland as part of the ISRU’sWork–in–Progress seminars. Dr Vogel presented her work-in-progresspaper ‘Anticipating Emerging Biotechnology Threats – A Case Study of CRISPR’. Dr Hannah Hughes served as discussant.
Dr Vogel is an Associate Professorin the Schoolof Public Policyat the University of Maryland. Dr Vogel holds a PhDin biological chemistry from Princeton University. She left her career in the sciences and then pursued one in science policy. From her science policy research and the dissatisfication with the existing tools and policy frameworks for understanding bioweapons threats and how to design appropriate policy responses, Dr Vogel focused on searching for and discovering alternative theoretical tools to reshape the discourse centred around biological weapons, with the hope of creating a new and generative intellectual conversation between academia and policy.
In this paper, Dr Vogel explores the conversations raised by recent advances in gene editing techniques known as CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats). This technology has, some have argued, rendered gene editing less expensive and more precise. Dr Vogel argues that the development of CRISPR technology has led policymakers and security analysts to consider the potential security implications and the potential for this technology to be used to develop biochemical weapons. Dr Vogel suggests that, as is often the case with these kinds of technological advancements, there is a tendency to develop security attention against and direct resources towards the prevention of the use of these technologies by ‘lone wolves’, ‘garage scientists’ or the ‘terrorist in a cave’.
In this article, Dr Vogel goes on to argue that this conceptualisation represents an oversimplification and fails to take into account the variety of social forces that shape technological developments. She claims that much of the security ‘hype’ around CRISPR fails to take into account the challenges new techniques and technologies face after their development. These challenges render the use of biochemical technologies such as CRISPR by so called ‘lone wolves’ in terrorist attacks, or the stereotypical images of the ‘garage’ scientist.
Indeed, it is Dr Vogel’s argument, given the scientific complexity of CRISPR as it currently stands, the resources and expertise required to carry out the necessary lab work, and the necessary first–hand practical knowledge that only comes with interactions in the lab, the chances of a ‘lone wolf’ or ‘terrorist in a cave’ being able to successfully use CRISPR to develop biochemical weapons is very slim, if not nigh on impossible. She claims that,because security conversations around this technology have failed to take into account these factors,policies and resourceshave been misdirected toward tackling these kindsof less plausible threats, instead of the far more realistic threat of this technology being used by a nation state to develop weapons.
Dr Vogel argues that the misinformed security conversations that take place around new technologies, especially in the bio-sciences, more often than not leadto this type of misplaced policy orientationand resources. Thus, a lot of Dr Vogel’s work asks questions about the social construction of technology. Dr Vogel criticises the lack of learning from these past misplaced security policies and the inability to consider technology more contextually. She calls for more empirical research aboutthereality of threats, rather than just a focus on the rhetoric.
The ISRU agreed that this was an exciting and refreshing piece of research, particularly because it bridges the gap between the more traditional hard sciences and the social sciences. This allows insight into the social implications of technological advancements and also the importance of technical expertise in policy making and academic debate surrounding these technologies.
I was unable to sit down with Dr Vogel after the ISRU seminar, but I did have email conversations with her to discuss her research and potential future projects.
You obviously started your career in the sciences. Was it this concern for misplaced security policies surrounding biochemical technologies that provoked your transition from the hard sciences to the social sciences?
Dr Kathleen Vogel:
I actually did not have any policy concerns about my lab work at the time. It just so happened that I took a science policy course while in graduate school, because I was curious, more generally, about science policy. For one module in the course we discussed weapons of mass destruction—at the time it was focused on Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons programs. I had never really thought about weapons much before, but I found that I was oddly fascinated by reading about this—and saw how my technical background could have relevance to understanding the policy issues behind this case.
Do you think this is a tendency that is seen across all scientific and technological developments? Is it something that is more profound with regard to biochemical weapons as opposed to other technologies?
Dr Kathleen Vogel:
I think that people generally assume that working with chemical or biological agents to develop weapons is easier than working with, say, nuclear weapons. But ‘easy’ is a relative term. Developing chemical and biological weapons does not require the same types of infrastructure and specialised materials as nuclear weapons. However, there is a lot of skill required to develop biological agents, in particular, as weapons—this is because many of them are based on living organisms (pathogens), which tend to have particular environments in which they like to grow and live. If one is not careful, one can contaminate and kill these pathogens, rendering their use as weapons useless. Even working with chemical agents requires some kindof skill, expertise, and access to specialisedmaterials and equipment.
Where do you envisage your research project going from here? Would you like to pursue more empirical work into the reality of threats?
Dr Kathleen Vogel:
Yes, I would like to do more empirical studies looking at developments in gene editing around the world. I recently received a grant to start a research project looking at how China is developing CRISPR. So, I would like to spend some time better understanding what has been happening with gene editing research in China.
Thank you so much for taking the time to visit us in Wales, present your work and especially for taking the time to