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.
In regions characterised by social and economic hardship and political upheaval, such as the West Bank, persons with disabilities –and indeed their families–are frequently isolated and stigmatised. Although there are some programmes throughout the region for improving the wellbeing of vulnerable families, they have not typically been accompanied by the type of independent and systematic monitoring and evaluation that is required to provide concrete evidence of efficacy and a framework that allows programme refinement and expansion.
To address this gap, Dr Hanna Kienzler is collaborating with the Institute of Community and Public Health (ICPH) at Birzeit University (occupied Palestinian territories), the Palestinian Community-Based Rehabilitation (CBR) Programme and War Trauma Foundation (Netherlands). Together, they are evaluating a community-based psychosocial intervention, following a Multi-Family Approach (MFA), to help the female carers of people with mental and physical disabilities. The intervention consists of mothers’ support groups, facilitated by trained community-based workers, and is based on evidence that positive and supportive social networks play an important role in effecting behavioural change and fostering well-being. A number of groups have been established across rural villages in the region; here women and children have a safe space where they can exchange experiences and advice and support each other to alleviate the burden of isolation.
Evaluation of the intervention uses an innovative approach combining ethnographic methods and Outcome Mapping. Ethnography is an approach that is by definition embedded in social and cultural context. Outcome Mapping–a methodology developed by the International Development Research Center and tested in low and middle income countries worldwide–characterizes and assesses the contributions made by development projects, programmes or organizations in terms of changes in behaviours, relationships and/or activities throughout the duration of the project. Specifically, it pays attention to outcomes, rather than outputs and whether or not the ultimate project goal has been fully attained.
Preliminary results from the West Bank indicate improvement in the well-being of mothers as well as in their skills in dealing with the disabilities; in their leadership skills; in their ability to share problems, knowledge and information; and to seek and offer support. And group members have already found strength in lobbying together for the rights of their children to access community schools, receive appropriate education and adequate social and medical care.
Already this project has provided valuable insights into the effectiveness of using MFA in a vulnerable region such as the West Bank. But just as important, the evaluation has enabled the approach to be tailored and refined for the next phase of the project which will see additional support groups established in other villages. Today CBR facilitates 19 women’s support groups in the West Bank using the MFA approach, allowing vulnerable women and their children to come together in a secure environment. The goal is to reach many more vulnerable families and to provide them with a method of support that is both evidence-based and culturally appropriate.
There are currently more than 1.5 million people aged 85 or over in the UK, and this is predicted to rise to over 5 million by 2050. This dramatic change in the country’s demographics as well as recent increases in the cost of institutional care have led to gloomy predictions about the nation’s ability to provide health and social care, pensions and housing to its oldest citizens.
How should this situation be addressed? One strategy is to ensure that older people are supported to remain in their own homes for as long as possible, rather than going into institutional care. For many older people, this scenario is far preferable and can reduce the financial costs of care. Research led by Professor Anthea Tinker has sought to identify the factors that enable older people to continue to live independently in their own homes. Her work has shown that while owning their own homes did give older people feelings of control, it also caused worry about costs and repairs, suggesting a role for affordable maintenance and repair services. Professor Tinker also examined the implications of remodelling sheltered housing or residential care units to create what are known as “extra care” facilities. Remodelled homes were found to provide better accommodation, more care and a better quality of life than conventional sheltered housing or residential care homes but there was enormous variation in design, and inconsistencies in admissions criteria caused confusion to older people and their families. In addition, measures were required to ensure that older people remained socially integrated in their communities.
Furthermore, Professor Tinker also examined the feasibility and costs of introducing assistive technology into older peoples’ homes – that is, any device or system that allows someone to perform a task that they would otherwise be unable to do, or to perform it more easily or safely. Contrary to popular opinion, older people were found to have positive attitudes towards technology and equipment in their homes, but the cost of adapting their homes is a potential barrier, and product design and quality are key.
Professor Tinker’s research has had a significant and widespread impact on guidelines and policies pertaining to older people both in this country and abroad. Her work informed the Government’s 2008 National Strategy for Housing in an Ageing Society as well as the Ministerial Group’s thinking on sheltered housing. Her findings on extra care housing were cited in the Government’s report Ready for Ageing? in 2013 and more recently in ‘Building Better Places’ from the House of Lords Select Committee on National Policy for the Built Environment. Her advice and insight have also been sought, and implemented, by the governments of countries worldwide. Her research has directly and substantially changed the culture of policy towards older people by demonstrating how important it is that older people are allowed to maintain their independence in later life and by actively promoting technologies and adaptations that do just that.
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