The Biosecurity Battle

Shaharyar Lakhani published on June 28, 2019:

There are always two applications of scientific research; the intended application, and well... the unintended. Assuming the former is being used to advance and benefit the world, the latter, when in the wrong hands, can result in the misuse of information or technology with malicious intent. We are approaching a time where so much can be done with information as it is published and disseminated. However, if the right precautions are taken beforehand, scientific progress can continue with less risk. 

In order to build community awareness of risk and threat, the Engineering Biology Research Consortium (EBRC) held a “Malice Analysis Workshop” on Wednesday, June 19th. The workshop was sponsored by the Center for Systems and Synthetic Biology at the University of Texas at Austin. The objective of the workshop was to help researchers “identify potentially malicious applications of various projects, mitigation options, and what to do if you identify something and don’t know how to proceed.” 

Clem Fortman and Douglas Friedman led a group of about 35 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, and taught strategies for how to mitigate information misuse. After discussing about the importance of this issue for the first hour of the workshop, the attendees were split up into small groups and using abstracts of their own research, given a rubric to analyze the potential ways for their projects to be used nefariously. While the harmful implications of scientific research are often overlooked, each team had to come up with various misuses of their information and find ways to prevent this misuse. Following a quick lunch break, a team leader from each team presented what they had thought up in front of the entire room and stood to answer questions that others had regarding biosecurity relating to their scenario. 

Jonny Riggs, an attendee of the workshop, analyzed a project involving small molecules commonly found in air pollutants that can stimulate harmful side effects through inhalation. “The risk of these pollutants is that terrorist groups could potentially weaponize them and release them into populated areas,” remarked Jonny. However, Jonny and his team had an altruistic goal, wanting to prevent any harm from reaching people due to these molecules. The team discussed the likelihood of the information being obtained, the expertise and equipment needed to synthesize and purify the molecules, and possible remediation techniques should something go wrong. Although projects like these do have the potential to be dangerous, Kasia Dinkeloo, another attendee, was “confident that the expertise, resources, and environment needed to conduct research for most of these projects would preclude them from misuse.”

Overall, the workshop was beneficial to many scientists like Kasia and Jonny. “As a plant scientist, I rarely think about how the research I do would be anything other than positive,” explains Dinkeloo. “The workshop provided a lot of useful insight on how we can be better stewards of the technology we create, by understanding that there are always two sides to research we conduct,” she further states. With an interactive approach, all the attendees were able to play out real world scenarios and benefited a great deal.

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