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Impact of GHSM Research

Safeguarding emerging biotechnologies against misuse - Filippa Lentzos' work on transparency, trust and biosecurity

Advances in science have enabled extraordinary benefits for human health and welfare. But these advances may also be misused, by national militaries, international terrorist networks, criminal groups, religious extremists, disgruntled or mentally ill scientists, or even biohackers, who aren’t necessarily motivated by politics or religion, but by curiosity, exacting revenge, payment or their own entertainment. Synthetic biology is often identified as the area of the life sciences most susceptible to misuse: in some imagined versions of a dystopian future, lay people design and engineer dangerous living organisms at will. We are yet to understand whether these risks are real or exaggerated.

Working within the BIOS+ GHSM research group, Dr Filippa Lentzos’  research gets to the bottom of this question. She explores contemporary and historical understandings of the threat of biological weapons. Her work extends to governance strategies to manage misuse risks associated with emerging technologies like synthetic biology, but also other fields of biological research like genome editing, potentially pandemic pathogens and neurobiology.

The international community has laid down clear red lines about the misuse of biology. The two biological cornerstones of the rules of war, the Biological Weapons Convention and the Geneva Protocol, prohibit the development, production, stockpiling and use of biological weapons. Making sure governments stick to the rules is the hard part. Dr Lentzos has been actively involved in the multilateral discussions on compliance monitoring, contributing her expertise through reports and policy briefs, statements, workshops and educational events, to support and shape the discussions. Her work often takes place in partnership with ministries of foreign affairs, the UN Secretariat of the Biological Weapons Convention, and other key stakeholders such as Chatham House, Wilton Park and the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in the United Kingdom, and European partners such as Geneva Centre for Security Policy, International Law and Policy Institute in Oslo, Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, and Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Most recently, she was invited by the German Federal Foreign Office to act as the sole ‘scientific observer’ to the unprecedented compliance assessment exercise it carried out at the Bundeswehr Institute of Microbiology in August 2016. The exercise provided representatives from twenty governments unique access to the facilities and its staff in an effort to demonstrate that transparency visits are possible even at highly secure biodefence facilities.

Scientific advances in biology and biomedicine are significantly eroding technological barriers to acquiring and using biological weapons. But, according to Dr Lentzos, life scientists are not part of the problem, they are part of the solution. Scientists have the cutting-edge technical expertise required to make sure the international red lines are not being crossed. Dr Lentzos engages with scientists, national academies of science and science policymakers on how best to foster responsible science and equip life scientists with a sensitivity that their experiments and research can be inadvertently and deliberately misused.  

With policymakers facing considerable challenges in preventing the threats associated with novel biotechnologies without forgoing their benefits, Dr Lentzos’ work is influencing the responsible trajectory of emerging life science technologies and contributing to the development of a sound governance regime.

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