The U.S. National Academies have just released a report, "Globalization, Biosecurity, and the Future of the Life Sciences."
The report makes very interesting reading. I'll start by quoting a paragraph on rapid technological change:
Many of the technologies discussed in this chapter create novel opportunities for scientists (and others) to explore aspects of biological and chemical diversity that cannot be accessed through natural mechanisms or processes. Given the unpredictable nature of technological change, it is difficult if not impossible to describe in definite terms what the global technology landscape will look like in 5 to 10 years, both with regards to the emergence of technologies with dual-use applications and the global geography of future breakthroughs. New, unexpected discoveries and technological applications in RNAi and synthetic biology arose even during the course of deliberations by this Committee. If this report, with the same charge, were prepared even just a year or two in the future, many of the details presented in this chapter would likely be different. [emphasis added]
In other words, they simply can't predict what will be developed even within a near-term planning horizon. Things are changing too quickly.
The chapter then proceeds with a survey of recently developed technologies. For example, a technique called DNA shuffling "allows for the simultaneous mating of many different species." This is not just proposed--it has already been used, and in at least some cases, has worked significantly faster than standard selection/evolution. Another phenomenon, RNA interference, may be usable to switch off genes with the delivery of only a few molecules per cell.
The executive summary is well worth skimming. It raises several concerns:
- That the US may be losing its preeminent position in life sciences, due to "the increasing globalization of science and the international dispersion of a wide variety of related technologies."
- That focusing on known bio-weapon pathogens may miss the bigger picture of non-traditional attacks.
- That laws such as PATRIOT and the Bioterrorism Response Acts may discourage research that could be helpful to the U.S.
- That a "well-coordinated public health response" (which they point out would be useful for several kinds of natural disasters as well as bio-attack) has been needed, the need has been acknowledged, and despite "substantial efforts since September 11, 2001" the result is "woefully ineffective."
In addition, the executive summary comments on the usefulness of international treaties: "Such international conventions should not be considered the solution to the issues society confronts today with respect to potential harmful use of advances in the life sciences, nor should they be cast aside and ignored. Despite their limitations, the Committee appreciates their value..."
The final paragraph of the executive summary shows a lack of faith in governmental preparedness and coordination. (It may be worth noting here that "overwhelming tropical cyclone" was one of the natural disasters they listed.)
It remains unclear how the country's response to a future biological attack will be managed. How will the responses of many different federal departments, e.g., the Departments of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, Justice, Defense, and the myriad agencies within them, be effectively integrated, and who will control operations and ensure that they are adequately interfaced with local and state governments and public health agencies? Although well beyond the scope of the Committee's charge, the development of an effective means of integrating the responses by multiple governmental agencies would provide the nation with perhaps the most necessary of "tools" with which to meet any future challenge.
Several comparisons can be made with molecular manufacturing:
- The relevent technologies will change rapidly--too rapidly to predict what will happen a decade from now.
- Breakthroughs can come out of left field and be rapidly incorporated in useful technologies.
- Breakthroughs can come from all over the world.
- Government will likely be unprepared to coordinate a response.
- Restrictive laws may be counterproductive.
- A variety of responses will be needed.
- Ongoing, targeted, wide-ranging study of the effects and how to deal with them is urgently required.