Boundaries for Biosecurity


Biosecurity Governance for the Real World

In “Biosecurity Governance for the Real World” (Issues, Fall 2016), Sam Weiss Evans offers three plausible ways to correct poor assumptions that frame so-called “dual-use research of concern.” I want to focus on one of these ways: that security itself should not be consideredin isolation from the broad range of values that motivate the quest for knowledge.

Much of dual-use research of concern touches on biodefense research: research to prevent a naturally occurring or intentionally caused disease pandemic. Indeed, much of the appeal of the 2011 avian influenza studies that Evans discusses reduces to claims about the value of this research in saving lives that may be taken in the future by influenza. In saying this, advocates of such research point out, I think correctly, that security is best taken as a broad appeal to protecting value, such as the value of human life, against loss.

This suggestion is a heresy for biosecurity and biodefense. By heresy, I mean an idea that runs contrary to established doctrine. That isn’t intended as a critique of Evans—indeed, the intent is quite the contrary. The idea stands as an invitation to consider the political philosophy of science and to view security in the context of a range of other values.

The heresy emerges because the unspoken calculation that endures behind dual-use research of concern assumes that it is, on balance, worth pursuing. To echo the National Academies’ 2003 report Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism, often referred to as the “Fink Report,” modern virology has given us great benefits. But as Regina Brown and I argued in “The social value of candidate HIV cures: actualism versus possibilism,” published in 2016 in the Journal of Medical Ethics, these benefits are at best incompletely realized and often poorly distributed. A large portion of the world’s poor lacks access to modern biotechnology, and the future does not promise a positive change in this disparity. Even in the United States, the significance of different threats to human health and well-being—to the security of human health against loss—are stratified between the research haves and have-nots in ways that don’t reflect the average person’s lived experience. We live in a world where Americans lose as many life years annually to suicide or migraines as they do to HIV/AIDS, yet as my research has found, these diseases differ in one key institutional driver—funding—by more than a hundredfold.

None of this is to suggest that we should abandon influenza research, which would surely cost many lives by delaying the development of vaccines and therapeutics against a deadly infectious disease. There is more to pursuing knowledge, moreover, than saving lives. But the upshot of Evans’s analysis is that we always restrict life-saving science: the unspoken calculation is always whose life we save with research.

The most recent deliberations on dual-use research of concern, conducted by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, made headway into this heresy by claiming that there are some types of research that are, in principle, not worth pursuing because the potential risks do not justify the benefits. Left undiscussed was whether the institution of science is adequately structured to promote human security. Evans calls attention to this heresy in biosecurity debates, and I sincerely hope people engage this matter thoughtfully.

Department of Philosophy

University of Massachusetts, Lowell

Cite this Article

“Boundaries for Biosecurity.” Issues in Science and Technology 33, no. 4 (Summer 2017).

Vol. XXXIII, No. 4, Summer 2017