Bioterror: Scientists, Industry, Government -- and Ethics
An Essay for the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences. 21 January 2002
Professor of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior; College of Biological Sciences;
University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN 55108.
Member of Adjunct Faculty, The Humanist Institute.
[Additions 27 February 2002. This essay was written because I was asked by my Dean to make a short presentation for a panel discussion on the subject of bioterrorism and academic freedom for an all-college meeting in December. The Dean’s idea was to give faculty some information and ideas to start thinking about issues implied for the biological sciences by 9/11, if they were interested. I did not feel that I could present even a verbal outline of the subject in a few minutes and so I wrote the following and distributed it to the faculty in my college. Then, for posting the essay on my website, I have made some additions to try to clarify certain points for non-biologists and for those who do not know me and who may not easily be able to put the ideas into the context of my other writings on the extremely complex scientific, institutional, and ethical issues in the new life sciences, which include genetic engineering and other high-tech reproductive manipulations. These are issues that too many people tend to hear and read through the filters of their preconceptions and popular beliefs, however hard one tries to be clear. Against this, I can only do my best to try to be clear, and hope for fair readers, and so I have added some text in bracketed italics. Non-bracketed italics are simply for emphasis. Also, an Afterword has been added to offer some perspectives on the factors that drive the proliforation of genetic engineering capacities, despite the dangers. This posting is the text from the last draft that left my hands before it was published in 2002 as a book, ISBN 0-9723848-0-4 (and Occasional Paper No. 1 of the North American Committee for Humanism). See Photo. The book's cover painting is "Dancing Scarecrows," courtesy of the artist, Henryk Fantazos. Copies of the publication can be obtained from email@example.com for $2.00 each.]Bioweapons
The issue of bioterrorism should concern us in the life sciences communities even if the only threats were from conventional biological weapons. But the progress and promise of the new life sciences also has very serious security implications that cannot in conscience be ignored, and that should be discussed among us. These implications include the obvious need to utilize advances if possible, to help to detect and combat biological weapons, but also there is the even more obvious need to deny, if possible, sensitive biological knowledge and materials to terrorists.
All indications are that the cultural, political, and economic conditions that breed the new level of organized suicidal terrorism that was publicly revealed on 9/11 will continue to exist throughout the duration of our civilization. All indications are that science and technology will continue to provide evermore-powerful potential resources for determined terrorists. Also, 9/11 demonstrated to the entire world that modern Western civilization has inherent vulnerabilities that can be exploited with little more than suicidal determination, forward-looking organization, and a modicum of imagination and cunning.
Thus, the need to address the issues below will not blow over with the death or capture of Bin Laden or the demise of Al Qaeda. At best, a little breathing and thinking time may be bought. But even this would not be guaranteed by their demise. So we should not be looking each day at the news for hope that the challenges will disappear; we should be thinking ahead, and far ahead.
Background for Security Challenges in the New Life
Sciences: Interest in Designer Diseases Originated in the United States
Scientists and the military have discussed the potential for new types of bioweapons, beyond such obvious pathogens as anthrax and smallpox, in the United States since the early 1970s. One promise was that surgically precise genetically engineered “designer” diseases would not have the notorious disadvantages of conventional biological weapons, where infections could spread back to one’s own population, or would so contaminate the land that it would be difficult to send in occupation troops or settlers. Congress has been lobbied since then to increase funding for new designer weapons, i.e. the interest has been sustained.
[There are some references for example in my posted essay “ A Brief History of Biosafety Debates in the United States (http://biosci.umn.edu/~pregal/GEhistory.htm). Other reports can be found in old Wall Street Journal articles/editorials and Congressional briefings, especially from the 1970s and 1980s when future policies were being debated.]The promises in those days were possibly idealistic. They included the idea that by using recombinant DNA techniques diseases could be made that would destroy only particular races of people, or that would attack only young men between 16 and 30 years of age, or quickly self-destruct after a first crippling blow, etc. But idealistic and unrealistic or not, the promise of surgically precise bioweapons was imagination-capturing enough to inspire renewed interest in biological weapons in the US, USSR, and elsewhere.
[In other words, whether or not particular designer weapons are possible is a separate issue. The promises and perception helped to refuel an international arms race, which is a great danger in and of itself considering that existing diseases such as unaltered smallpox could do enormous damage if deployed systematically as weapons.]In addition, US government laboratories have made progress in increasing the delivery capacity of conventional biological weapons such as anthrax, as well as of any new designer weapons.
The US has quietly developed biological weapons, despite President Nixon’s ban in the 1970s, on the premise that effective weapons and delivery systems must be built as models for the development in turn of defensive counter-measures. Many details of these programs are discussed in the investigative report, Germs: Biological Weapons, and America’s Secret War by NY Times reporters Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad. The exact nature and extent of US programs remains shadowy. It has been public knowledge that visible budgets were increased and that some biowarfare facilities were reopened. But I cannot personally in any way put a dollar figure on the actual total amount, and I cannot claim to have any special insights into the scope of the programs, and I would not have much confidence in estimates at the upper end. I know personally (from when I was on the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, and was working with NSF officials, for example) that some of this funding has been hidden in other budgets.
Some US biotech industry advocate/lobbyists have argued strenuously, contrary to the bioweapons development advocates for designer bioweapons, that it would be impossible to make more dangerous disease organisms than already existed prior to the 1980s. The “impossibility argument,” though persistent, has been based on unsound and outdated biological reasoning. To the extent that this has been believed and ingrained into the bureaucratic consciousness, though, it could well be, as it does appear, that US biological weapons studies/preparations have lagged far behind developments in the Soviet Union and possibly elsewhere. Certainly there is no compelling evidence that US attention to bioweapons in any way approached the astonishing efforts of the Soviet Union in the 1980s to build their programs of research and manufacture.
The Enormous Soviet Bioweapons Program
Capitalizing on the potentials of the new life sciences that began to emerge in the 1970s and 1980s, Soviet scientists convinced their government to initiate a huge bioweapons development program. Entire cities were built around biowarfare projects, engaging at least 60,000 scientists and technicians.
[In other words, the IDEA of rDNA designer weapons may have been hatched in the United States, but the Soviets then started enormous secret programs. These programs became knowable to the outside world in the 1990s and so there is an information-base to discuss them here. And clearly biologists and policy makers should be aware of the technical facts for a variety of reasons that I hope are apparent, so I lay out the information that I know of. I do not have a political agenda in bringing up the Soviet programs. I am NOT trying to make the Soviets look like "the bad guys" on this matter by bringing up the facts below. Moreover, I do not mean to imply that the United States or other Western nations DID NOT initiate equally dangerous biowarfare programs, though in some different way than concentrating their molecular biology efforts in huge facilities, which would have been unnecessary in the United States. I have no idea whatsoever if they did nor not. All I know of is discussed below, and it would seem on the surface to be modest by comparison to the Soviet effort. There could easily be much more that I do not know about. The main point that I am trying to make is that molecular biologists and politicians on various sides of ideological and political divides clearly have gotten the world into a mess, a bioweapons arms race, and now biologists should face up to this.]Much of this set of programs was exposed in the early 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and US scientists and journalists have visited some of the closed down facilities and interviewed former Soviet biowarfare scientists. Investigations by NY Times journalists and others claim that aspects of the program have continued in Russia and remain secret even today. The former head of this program, Ken Alibek, now works in the US as a private consultant to government.
The general situation that developed in the Soviet Union is no longer by any means secret. Prior to the collapse of the USSR there were a lot of questionable but troubling rumors in scattered news reports, congressional briefings, and Washington gossip. I can say that these go back at least to the mid-1980s when I got marginally involved and had to start paying attention to the general issue. It was difficult for me to know if there was much substance to the published reports and Washington rumors, or if cold warriors and/or biowarfare enthusiasts who wanted more funding for their pet programs were too eagerly spreading rumors about secret USSR programs. Yet some hard facts have surfaced and easily available readings on the Soviet/Russian programs as well as the US programs have recently become available.
The most easily obtainable general introductions include for example: Alibek’s 1999 book Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World Told from Inside by the Man Who Ran It , and the 2001 book Germs: Biological Weapons, and Americas Secret War. Matthew Meselson attempted to summarize this last book in the 20 December 2001 New York Review of Books. Also two pretty good recent investigative reports should be easy to obtain if you are interested Frontline 9 Oct. 2001 Looking for Answers and especially Nova 13 Nov. 2001 “Bioterror.” There was also a very good panel discussion on CSpan with the NY Times Reporters recently. I forgot to record it, but it should not be difficult to find for anyone who is interested. Living Terrors: What America Needs To Know To Survive the Coming Bio-terrorist Catastrophe by Michael Osterholm and John Schwartz gives especially interesting accounts of epidemiologist Osterholm’s personal work on national committees to deal with civilian defense issues in the US after the USSR programs became known, and after the enormity of the threat of bioterrorism from other parties as well became clear to specialists.
It is awful enough that the USSR maintained a stock of 4,500 metric
tons of weapons grade anthrax. They developed some 2,000 different strains
of anthrax, and deliverable smallpox, hemorrhagic fever, Marburg plague,
and others. But the huge program did not stop at that.
Soviet developments superficially may confirm what for decades has been well understood in principle in the West by those who have studied the technical complexities of using the new biology to make new types of bioweapons. Teams of top Soviet biologists decided that terrible as they may be, conventional biological weapons can be made, whether or not surgically precise, into considerably worse types of diseases using the techniques of the new life sciences. And at the same time delivery can be made increasingly more effective using various state-of-the art developments.
[Some of my US colleagues conjecture that the Soviet scientists were simply hyping the lethal potentials of genetic engineering just as US biologists too often hype its beneficial potentials to promote their own self-interests. This is plausible but facile speculation. Briefly, I do not think that it is safe to trivialize the enormous Soviet effort so readily, especially considering the potential risks in dismissing their effort. The issue of the self-interest of scientists is incredibly serious in any event. Soviet molecular biologists pursued their own self-interest by going to government and arguing that emerging genetic engineering techniques could be used to develop terrible weapons. This gained them research funding, social status, and political clout. By the same token it was in the self-interest of Western molecular biologists to insist that genetic engineering could be used only safely and thus deflect public criticism, and thus protect the funding, social status, and political clout that they were gaining. Biologists on both sides may well have talked themselves into believing what they were arguing. Thus society is left in an exceedingly difficult and dangerous position. It has been virtually impossible to find genetic engineers and molecular biologists whose security is not tied in one way or another to given lines of thought. Where shall reliable advice be found?]The potential for deadly weapons that has been pursued in the Soviet Union at least, includes the construction of new hybrid diseases with new mixes of clinical symptoms that physicians are not trained to recognize, let alone to treat.
[As the non-biologist reads this essay it should be kept in mind that there is a great gulf between the construction of an organism that can reproduce under laboratory or greenhouse conditions, such as white rats, and organisms that can thrive under demanding natural conditions. But the driving assumption behind much of biotechnology has been that once a desired genetically engineered construct has been made that is viable in the laboratory, it can be further modified to be viable in a real-world environment. This is theoretically possible, and some field-testing has already confirmed that genetically engineered organisms that are intended for deliberate release can thrive and be competitive under natural conditions. The ecological challenge, though, the gap between the laboratory and the real world, will be mentioned repeatedly throughout this essay, and it is discussed in detail in my other publications, such asScientific principles for ecologically based risk assessment of transgenic organisms. Molecular Ecology 3:5-13 and the publication on Exotic species models.]The Soviets also were creating and testing animal models of disease agents that would be eliminated from the body soon after triggering a cascade of endogenous lethal destructive processes, so that physicians and research scientists would not be able to trace the cause of the disease.
These last would (if the concepts and laboratory animal models can be translated into human diseases) circumvent the natural resistance of individuals in populations. Thus their attacks on the body would also advance rapidly, so that there would be little time to administer any novel treatments that might be developed in the future by science. Their rate and extent of spread through populations would not be slowed down by the higher thresholds for spread of infection that population level heterogeneity in natural immunity offers. Quicker deaths would shorten the time available for transmission; but lowering of thresholds for infection could balance this factor, with the result that spreading rates might well be the same as, or even higher than, those in known models. It would take careful empirical studies and epidemiological/ecological modeling to say much more.
The Soviets were also actively working on doomsday bioweapons. It can be said that it is in principle, at least, scientifically (physically, biologically) possible, to make highly lethal bioweapons to which there is no immunologic or antibiotic defense, and with contagious spread characteristics that would overcome damping-out tendencies due to normal population dynamics. The Soviet effort suggests that their scientific teams judged that in the context of available technologies this is a near-term practical as well as a distant theoretical possibility.
[At the risk of being tediously repetitive, let me again caution non-biologist readers not to assume that one can simply throw pieces of DNA together and produce whatever functioning pathogen one wants. The complexity of organisms and the track record of genetic engineering both imply that success would require both technical sophistication and luck. One could spend a great deal of time and money and not get the expected results because unexpected complications arise, especially with complex systems such as organisms or one could be lucky. An analogy to underscore the difference between even sound theory and practical realism might be the generation of electrical power by nuclear fusion plants. This may be theoretically possible, just as the generation of power by fission was theoretically possible, but there still are none of the promised fusion generators despite decades of research and enormous expenditures even though uranium-based fission generators were relatively easily made and have already been producing power for decades.]Presumably, doomsday or quasi-doomsday weapons would be used to threaten an enemy that could strike and destroy ones population while itself remaining relatively safe. Presumably the US or China would not dare to destroy the Soviet Union if it threatened to unleash doomsday destruction. This may seem insane, but it is basically a logical extension of the principle of mutual assured destruction that guided cold war strategic defense thinking for decades.
Presumably, suicidal terrorists could also use doomsday weapons this way, or for some other sort of blackmail. Or, if the terrorists were really fanatical, they might just call for the end of time and the final judgment.
Such a doomsday disease could spread from person to person along all air and ground transportation lines. In the worst possible case it could reach and kill most people on earth, except hopefully for the most remote and isolated tribes in the Arctic or in mountain forests of New Guinea, etc. In my opinion it is hyperbole to refer to the end of the human species in the context of a doomsday bioweapon. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine how modern societies and nations could survive any extreme version of such a scenario.
[So one can legitimately argue about whether or not the term should be used at all in discussions, i.e. does doomsday mean the end of all human life or merely the end of civilizations and the present world order?]The most terrible possibilities for bioweapons should be included here for completeness in an outline of what is scientifically possible. But there is a distinct psychological danger in mentioning them. The human mind has a tendency to fixate on those possible disasters that seem most dramatic, either in fear, to stay alert, or in denial, to dismiss them. And then people will ignore or pay only wandering and inadequate attention to the broad spectrum of possible, and perhaps more realistic, threats that fall short of the most imagination-capturing consequences.
[In other words I would prefer not to mention worst case scenarios at all, because the history of these has been that they mostly take attention and energy away from lesser magnitude but still quite important concerns that could and should be on the table for immediate discussion. But if one does not even mention some of the theoretically possible worst-case scenarios, my observation has been that leaving them out of discussions will generate the incorrect impression that they are nothing that should concern us at all. There is sociology of knowledge and surely even scientists establish their knowledge base and opinions in large part based on what they hear respected colleagues talking about. Thus they can develop biased impressions about things that are not being discussed seriously.]Bioweapons in the Hands of Hostile Nations and Persons
When I was on the Sloan Foundations committee to promote the study of molecular evolution we were asked on an emergency basis to consider and approve funding to help keep key Soviet/Russian scientists from leaving for hostile countries. (They asked us because the five of use were the only panel of natural scientists that they had at the time.) And we did approve the funding, even though this was a highly unusual project for Sloan, contrary to their published guidelines, and it had nothing to do with molecular evolution—but time was of the essence. I do not know how much good this did or did not do. But it seemed critically important and well worth a try.
Interestingly, when the apartheid government collapsed in 1994, Qadaffi tried to hire the now unemployed scientists from South Africa’s secret bioweapons program, including Wouter Basson, the head of Project Coast, which admitted to be developing weapons based on anthrax, botulinum, Marburg, salmonella, HIV, and Ebola. As I recall, the South Africans found some way to keep him from leaving. Again interestingly, Qadaffi is now reportedly helping the US and has condemned the terrorists, saying that they are putting in danger the whole of humanity. One might wonder if he understands the theoretical dangers of bioweapons better than most do because of his own previous efforts to gain a capacity.
[Again, I have no idea how close the South Africans may have been to their goal. The main point that I am trying to make is that the theoretical promise of designer weapons and the development of high-tech biological equipment has helped to spread the biological arms race beyond the US and Soviet Union. This story is offered to illustrate that there has been an arena of interest in bioweapons out there in the world that most biologists have not been aware of. I bother to stress this because too many of my colleagues have been assuming for too many years that the US and Europe can keep control over the modern genetic technologies. There has been some provincialism and even racism and since the early 1980s I have repeatedly heard colleagues argue that foreigners could never set up molecular biology labs and run them without Western management. In the meantime, Cubans, Indians, etc. have been doing high quality genetic engineering.]Today’s professional pundits close to the intelligence agencies commonly state on television, and in newspaper articles, that Iraq still has programs underway to develop biological weapons, and other hostile nations may as well. It is well understood that even with inspectors on the ground in Iraq, it was not possible to verify that their ambitious bioweapons programs had been destroyed, and the inspectors have stated that they strongly feel that such programs have been concealed and presently still exist. Thus no one doubts that those other hostile nations that have not allowed ground inspections could well have concealed bioweapons programs. Without knowing details about the nature and capacity of these conjectured programs, and their potential for growth, it is difficult to comment specifically on how much or in what ways research and technology development in the US, Europe, and Japan might aid their cause by ways of publications, spies, purchases, thefts, etc. (There are discussions in the references above of both probable and apparent bioweapons programs in a disturbingly large number of nations.)
I know of no information on the success to date of any free lance terrorist cells to build a capacity to make or obtain any truly sophisticated bioweapons. But it is daily stated as fact by US government officials that Bin Laden’s network has shown an interest in obtaining and developing bioweapons. Of course an attack with a traditional contagious disease such as smallpox could be terrible and far from trivial, and superficially at least it would seem that this would be much easier to obtain and produce at this moment than some of the more exotic bioweapons mentioned. But this fact does not rule out the possibility that they will now or in the future take a serious interest in the potentials of the new life sciences.
[The point here is that terrorists are likely to continue so far as they are able to obtain or build biological weapons. There is no obvious reason why the danger would not continue as long as suicidal terrorism continues, and the religious, economic, and political structural elements are firmly in place and this suggests that efforts to obtain biological weapons are likely to continue indefinitely, even if the intensity of effort waxes and wanes.]Again, one can only say in general terms that biologists, life sciences companies, and universities should be alert to the possibility that they may have information and/or supplies that could be useful to terrorists and that could be obtained through publications, spying, purchases, thefts, and even kidnappings. They should undertake discussions and actions to minimize Western civilizations vulnerability. Sources such as Osterholm state flatly that a number of US trained biologists have returned to their countries to work in bioweapons programs.
The Issue of Lack of Scientific Sophistication
This outline/essay was originally written for biologists, who would easily understand that there can be a huge gulf between what is scientifically possible in principle and the actual production of a functioning biological organism or virus, traditional or exotic, outside of the laboratory, using currently available technology and expertise.
[Again, for discussion see such publications as Scientific principles for ecologically based risk assessment of transgenic organisms. Molecular Ecology 3:5-13 and my paper on Exotic species models for GEOs.]There is a second great gulf between having an ecologically/pathologically viable organism or virus and having something that can in the real world be stored and delivered as a weapon.
[By analogy: there was an enormous gap between theory and actually splitting the atom. Then there was a second enormous gap between being able to split atoms in the laboratory and constructing the first secret weapon that led us into the atomic age. Some scientists before the fact even doubted that it could be done in any country. Many assumed that it was improbable that Germany, Japan, or the Soviet Union could ever develop their own atomic weapons.]But even both gulfs together do not add up to scientific impossibility. There has been virtually unanimous agreement among experts that free-lance terrorists could obtain smallpox, for example, and find ways to deliver it, even though one can discourse at length on how difficult this might be. It is also clear that super bioweapons are being worked on and in my opinion and that of others they are scientifically possible, even if any given project might be quite difficult.
Improbability may be an attractive fallback term if one wishes to dismiss a disturbing matter but cannot in conscience defend the term impossible. In the present context, there are a few scientists who have argued that terrorists could not make or obtain and use the most deadly types of bioweapons because the terrorists are too scientifically unsophisticated.
[The context for next discussing "improbability" is that there has been a history of intense arm-waving by the biotech community, using the terms "improbability" and "science" to lobby for effective deregulation of genetic engineering. Yet the deregulation advocates have tended to not back up their arguments with explicit scientific information and concepts that are open to debate and refinement in peer-reviewed scientific journals etc. They have developed public relations rhetoric that at best offers little more than the off-hand opinions of various biotech community "experts" and claims that "scientists" agree that dangers are "improbable" or "vanishingly small." The best possible scientific reasoning was not being used. This is one reason that the Ecological Society of America was urged to issue a set of guidelines for the scientific reasoning to be used in evaluating of GEOs. See "The Release of Genetically Engineered Organisms: A Perspective from the Ecological Society of America Ecology 1989" Issues associated with bioterrorism involve somewhat similar challenges for scientific analysis as do questions related to regulation/deregulation of whether genetic engineering can produce dangerous organisms by accident or by unwise uses. The issue is much too important to continue to deal with superficially. When claims are made that something is biologically improbable, the reasoning should be spelled out and made available for scientific discussion or one should not claim to have science on their side. The next paragraphs aim to make the point that making proper estimations of probability and improbability are in fact not at all easy to do scientifically. Careless claims about "improbability" and "science" can easily generate a false sense of security. This has in fact too often been the case when natural species have been introduced to new habitats. Teams of bureaucrats and scientists made judgments that introducing a particular fish or mammal, etc. would in all probability be safe, but they were simply wrong because they forgot to take one thing or another into account. See for example my publication on Exotic species models for genetically engineered organisms.]Ignoring the plain fact that many identified terrorists have in fact been drawn from the ranks of highly trained professional people, let us focus on the nuanced idea of improbability.
Terms like improbable and the probability is vanishingly small can appear superficially to be scientific and objective, because probability sounds like a technically precise professional term, the result of rigorous calculation. But the fact is that it has proved to be a dangerous term to use in biological discussions because it has different implications for different individuals in terms of how probabilities are visualized and itemized.
[The main point of these next paragraphs is not that improbable really means probable. It is very simply that miscalculation of probability has a long and notorious history, most obviously in military affairs and economics. One can fall into the same errors of judgment when considering scientific matters, particularly with regard to complex phenomena, where critical variables can come into play that one has not anticipated. There are continually surprises in science, and often a surprise is a surprise because something was discovered that was thought to be highly improbable. Nearly all US scientists, for example, dismissed Continental drift, as an absurdly improbable idea until the mid-1970s, while other scientists presented much geological and biogeographic evidence, and even a model for a convection cell driving mechanism, that should have left the matter open for civil, collegial discussion.]If one digs beneath the surface of assertions one finds individual or group differences in the items which are included in ones mental lists and in how each item is assigned probability values, how probabilities are added or multiplied together, and in terms of what one has left out of ones subjective calculations.
For example, evolutionary biology has long had to deal with Creationists
who are convinced that hummingbirds could not have evolved by natural selection
because, as Creationists calculate the odds by using criteria that make
sense to them, birds that can fly backwards could not possibly have evolved.
On the other hand, some biologists would argue that the probability of
hummingbirds evolving by natural selection is so absolute that their evolution
was inevitable and that the real difficulty is to explain why they are
only found in the New World!
One mans improbability is another mans inevitability.
Another complication is that even reasonably complete subjectively
appealing calculations of probability or improbability tend to be made
in terms of the world as one understands it today. In the case of bioweapons,
conceptual and/or technological breakthroughs could change the equation
substantially. Biologists should easily be able to visualize the fact that
the modern life sciences are a vast landscape of changing scientific potentials.
For that matter, terrorists could simply buy into small floundering life science companies in The US or Europe under assumed identities to gain not only expertise but even to gain a front for buying equipment and supplies. Saddam Hussein, for example, has developed front companies in the past. Al Qaeda has reportedly routinely used front companies for various purposes, most notably money laundering.
One cannot rule out the possibility that bioweapons would be developed and used by Americans against Americans. At the moment, the FBI has come down to investigating this possibility in connection with the recent anthrax attacks. The possible motives are not unthinkable. They are even diverse. The Americans-against-Americans possibilities that are being checked by the FBI include anti-government, survivalist, tax-protesters who follow a rogue type of logic. They include those who might stand to profit from the sales of vaccines or medicines. They even include the possibility that some patriotic government scientists might want to shock the country into taking the terrible threat of biological warfare much more seriously than it has over the last two decades.
The rapid proliferation of modern life science materials and expertise around the world further complicates any hopes that subjective impressions of improbability can be depended on. The new life sciences are in a phase where global marketing by aggressive salesmanship, through government programs, and with pressures from the banking industry and international banks is well underway. The plan in motion by industry, banking, and government has been to raise the total amount of new biology laboratory and industrial capacity dramatically throughout the world. This is intended in turn to enlarge the markets for US life sciences equipment, materials, and graduates, and to increase overall economic activity throughout the industry and to help reward private investors and lending banks.
Technology developed here in the US and to a lesser extent in Europe is being thrust as fast as is commercially possible into worlds that may sometimes include levels of carelessness, corruption, and political ambition that most of us can at best only imagine. How can this rapid commercial spread of the technology of the modern life sciences be factored into any estimates of probability or improbability? Or does it render comforting assurances of improbability facile and absurd?
How much do any of us know even about even so close a professional matter as the boundaries of academic freedom in a random list of a dozen foreign countries?
How can any of us dismiss concerns about the political leanings or
vulnerabilities of scientists in foreign countries? Iraq, Iran, and other
nations clearly have scientists helping with their bioweapons programs.
The US government has frozen the funds of a Pakistani charity group, Ummah
Tameer-e-Nau, run by two former Pakistani government nuclear scientists,
because of their contacts with Bin Laden and alleged aid to Al Qaeda. The
government claims that UTN members and directors had met with Al Qaeda
to discuss nuclear and biological weapons, and kidnappings.
Military history is filled with tragic miscalculations of improbability. Historian Barbara Tuchman in her book The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam sought to define folly and distinguish it from simple mistakes. Folly is the tendency to follow self-destructive courses despite warnings and the availability of clearly evident alternatives. Folly has often determined the course of history.
The US was spending over six billion dollars each year (last budgeted up to twelve billion) for counter-terrorism in general prior to 9/11, and so one cannot say that Americans were unaware of the threats. There was even ample evidence from the situation leading to the arrest of Moussaoui in Eagan, Minnesota weeks before 9/11 that passenger jets could and might be used as bombs. Yet most Americans would have said that it was improbable that terrorists could simultaneously and successfully hijack four airplanes with trained pilots and crews of helpers eager to die for their cause, and security standards remained poor.
Moreover, it was made clear in hearings that the FBI and others in
government were unprepared to use available information and resources.
They admitted that they had indeed given too much weight to such seeming
[For example, Combating Terrorism: Considerations for Investing Resources in Chemical and Biological Preparedness (17-OCT-01, GAO-02-162T) which is available on the web and includes references to some other previous General Accounting Office reports on government preparedness for terrorism, including bioterrorism).
Similarly the film Pearl Harbor has reminded many people recently that prior to that infamous attack, most in military command were giving great weight to the list of difficulties that would be involved in launching a secret attack across the vast distance between Japan and Hawaii, and were ignoring important indications to the contrary.
[Essentially by definition, a surprise attack is an attack that generals assumed was improbable; and nations have even fallen because of miscalculated probabilities.]It might seem improbable that the terrorists of today could develop sophisticated bioweapons. But it would be folly to stick our heads in the sand and ignore future possibilities, based on this superficial impression, and for that matter based merely on a snapshot of the progress of the life sciences as it stands today.
Australian scientists were working with mousepox as a vector. They spliced in a gene for interleukin-4. (They hoped to stimulate an immune response against mouse ova, using an antigen that would eventually be added, and thus sterilize the mice.) The scientists were surprised that the IL-4 gene disrupted the immune response and made the mousepox into a much more serious disease. The new mousepox hit the mice much more quickly and was much more physically damaging and deadly than the natural mousepox. The normal immune system became relatively ineffective and vaccination was also ineffective.
Thus the scientists reported what was to them and other Western scientists, at least, a new CONCEPT for biowarfare in the February 2001 Journal of Virology. The new mousepox was itself presumably not dangerous to humans, and the laboratory model involved limited studies, but it was a laboratory model that raised the logical, scientific possibility that any human infectious disease could be made much more deadly if this relatively simple and cheap concept could be applied to smallpox, influenza, chickenpox, etc. (Type in mousepox using the search engine google.com and you will find many references to the mousepox matter, including interviews with the scientists that stress the need for more oversight of their own technology.)
The experiment has also been interpreted by some as evidence that
organisms and viruses could accidentally (unexpectedly) be made much more
dangerous with certain types of gene splicing. But be that as it may, the
example does in any event illustrate that a team of skilled scientists
and their network of colleagues had been making judgments about improbability
that were in fact invalid.
The major general point in this section is that we cannot be at all certain that free lance terrorists will not be able to make or obtain dangerous bioweapons simply because one can so easily put together a long list of biological difficulties that biologically unsophisticated (at least it is commonly believed) terrorists would face.
[So the reader may ask, what is the bottom line for me, with regard to genetically engineered bioweapons in particular? What do I personally think the odds are that some sort of genetically engineered super bioweapon can as a practical as well as a theoretical matter be developed? The issue of "doomsday weapons aside," I am among those who would bet that if talent and money were brought together rather terrible constructions could be made in only a few years; and such may even already exist in some government lab in the US or elsewhere for all we can know. I lean towards making such a bet for several reasons.
1) Technological advances in biotechnology are moving ahead with breathtaking speed. There was a string of surprises in the 1980s and 1990s. Even from the newspapers one knows at least that the human genome was sequenced ahead of schedule and clones were produced from adult cells in mammals. Much of US agriculture was converted to genetically engineered crops in only a couple of years and the public and even many scientists were unaware of how fast such projects had moved. This is merely the most publicly visible evidence of the rapid development of genetic and reproductive technologies. However the field looks today, it will be different tomorrow, and it is likely that any technological obstacles to making genetically engineered bioweapons that may seem to some to exist today will in any event be less in the future.
2) The nature of biotechnology projects is such that it lends itself to dispersed enterprises in small labs. It is not necessary as one might suppose to bring together the world's top scientists in a huge central laboratory such as Los Alamos during World War II. Scattered scientists could right now be working on pieces of a project without even knowing how it is intended that their specialized research will ultimately be used. This happens even now with regard to molecular research that may ultimately be used by industry for commercial purposes.
3) The community of molecular biologists has used obsolete ecological and evolutionary theory to convince themselves that genetically engineered organisms will necessarily always be inferior in natural settings to natural organisms. Again here see publications such as The Ecology of Evolution: Implications of the Individualistic Paradigm, The Adaptive Potential of Genetically Engineered Organisms in Nature, Models of Genetically Engineered Organisms and Their Ecological Impact, The Release of Genetically Engineered Organisms: A Perspective from the Ecological Society of America, Scientific principles for ecologically based risk assessment of transgenic organisms. Molecular Ecology 3:5-13 and my paper on Exotic species. In this connection they have sometimes overestimated the changes that are necessary to make some types of non-pathogens into pathogens, or pathogens into worse pathogens. For example, in my work with government to explore biosafety issues, molecular biologists would argue that it would take many genetic changes to make a virus or bacteria more virulent. They were adding up all factors that contribute to pathogenicity rather than simply the critical changes that would be necessary. Yet the fact is that in some cases it may take only tiny genetic changes to make for example a virus that causes sniffles into a very deadly virus. The implication of this paragraph for our purposes is that molecular biologists and genetic engineers have not developed a modern scientific conceptual framework, in step with other types of biologists and biological knowledge, with which to properly evaluate the dangers that one can predict could sometimes be created with biotechnology. Thus when some of them argue that very dangerous organisms cannot be created with biotechnology, they use reasoning that seems illogical to me and others, and it is not comforting.
4) It has been in the self-interest of US and European molecular biologists to convince themselves that genetic engineering can only produce harmless transgenic organisms, because they have needed support from a sometimes cautious public, and have needed to maintain the morale of their ranks. Yet a few have admitted to me privately that they are concerned that terrible weapons could in principle be made, but they judge or hope this is unlikely because only a madman would do it and because most molecular biologists abroad would not be able to figure out how to do it. Of course there can be no doubt that there are "madmen" if one chooses to use that word, and I think it is a silly argument that foreign scientists could not hope to figure out how to make such weapons.
5) American scientists in this field are very proud of the accomplishments of molecular biology in the 20th century and have seemed to me commonly to underestimate the potential of foreign scientists. Examples of second-rate scientists can be found anywhere. And in any event it is recognized that Cuba, for example, has developed excellent biotechnology programs.
6) As the scientific literature grows and as the material technology for genetic engineering improves, evermore sophisticated projects have been and can be done in nearly any part of the world with enough money, and can be done by less educated scientists. Biotechnology is becoming evermore "cookbook." So the argument that genetically engineered bioweapons will not be developed because any terrorist-leaning scientists are not smart enough seems shallow and unconvincing in several respects.
Let me add that it is a good bet that large corporations may even now be lobbying for government funds to make genetically engineered diseases so that they can then try to develop preventatives and cures. If this trend materializes then many of the practical difficulties will be overcome with increased speed. We will move faster toward deadly capacities, and the seriousness of any security leaks or any arms races will increase accordingly. This is not why I am willing to place this bet, but it would certainly increase my chances of winning, a grim and bitter victory.]
Lack of Leadership
It is worth noting at this point that the Australian scientists kept their findings secret for two years out of fear that their discovery might inspire terrorists. But they became frustrated that they could find no one and nowhere in the scientific or government communities to turn for leadership, advice, or for any expectation of action. So in the end the team did publish their results and began giving public interviews in the hope that the scientific community or government would wake up and begin to organize to deal with such matters.
With regard to the general issue of leadership, the NYTimes reporters/authors of the Germs book during a panel discussion (available on C-Span), months after 9/11, complained that the government still did not seem to be organizing to deal with the larger and long-term issues relating to bioterrorism. They complained that there was still at that time no coherent long-range plan; there were not even any significant (fully responsive to the scale and nature of the challenges) introductions of appropriations bills, even for the medical emergency aspect of the matter.
Also on the general issue of leadership, news reports have quoted scientists who were troubled that FBI agents investigating the anthrax attacks did not seem to have any idea what they were looking for when they visited laboratories and questioned scientists. This is really disappointing considering that there have been serious discussions of bioterrorist threats for decades, even well before the Gulf War and the high-profile search for Saddam’s bioweapons facilities. A few years ago President Clinton publicly stated that the prospect of biological attacks kept him awake at night. He gave a public speech and openly promoted increases in the budget to deal with the issue. Still, months after 9/11 and a small but real anthrax incident, we seem to be largely unprepared and dragging our feet.
Moreover, there have been many hearings on the subject, but little relevant action. Michael Osterholm, the former Minnesota State Epidemiologist, and John Schwartz in Living Terrors: What America Needs to Know to Survive the Coming Bioterrorist Catastrophe (2000) have detailed the lack of preparation by government and the health community despite years of meetings and reports. Despite some increases in funding, the authors argue that the funds have too often been misspent because of bureaucratic failures to understand how medical services are organized and must operate, and the inability of health services to prepare properly without suitable leadership. They detail that the problems with civil disorder that can be expected from a bioterror catastrophe involving something like smallpox, for example, may well be very different from those with which soldiers and police have been trained to deal. But people in civil defense related agencies have had difficulties conceptualizing the challenges.
Some new US government initiatives were announced, in December 2001. (See for example http://www.niaid.nih.gov/newsroom/releases/accelbio.htm and http://www.niaid. nih.gov/dmid/bioterrorism/). But these have been easy and obvious offers and it remains to be seen if these offers signal prospects for any significant attack on the larger problems before us. They may amount to little more, in the larger scheme of things, than talking-ammunition for bureaucrats so that they can look-busy-and-responsible—asbestos for the hot seat. But what we really need is strategic thinking and vision.
There have been recent debates over future appropriations. The Bush administration has requested 1.5 billion dollars increase for such obvious needs as stockpiling antibiotics etc. for some of the human diseases that might be unleashed. Congress is considering doubling this to about 3 billion in a general anti-terrorist appropriation of some 15 billion dollars, but even this would fall far short of the more than 11 billion that some have estimated is needed simply for immediate civil defense preparedness in the event of a smallpox attack for example. Again, this is not yet evidence of coherent forward-looking planning for the breadth of issues involved.
Individuals are most attentive to threats that they can visualize in terms of attacks on their own bodies. But there have also been serious concerns about non-medical forms of bioterrorism. In fact many of us who have been close to this issue have speculated for nearly two decades that the first effective uses of advanced designer bioweapons would be against crops and livestock if the attack came from another government.
Plant and animal diseases would be relatively easy to modify genetically and to then to test and finally to deliver. And, obviously, successful anti-crop and livestock weapons could severely cripple the economy and morale of a nation or region.
The relative genetic uniformity of many crops and of many domesticated animal breeds brings the concept of race-specific designer weapons closer to reality than in the case of humans. Thus it might be more possible for a hostile government to cripple the economy of another nation with less fear that the plague would circle back to its own lands.
Human genetic diversity is so great and poorly defined geographically that the much-promoted idea of effectively tailoring a disease to a particular enemy population seems highly doubtful to me. This is not to say that no one would try it. White South African government officials were quoted during the Truth Commission hearings revealing that they had a program to try to construct designer diseases that would kill blacks only. But again, personally I am one of those who has been skeptical that this level of surgical precision could have been attained, whereas it has seemed more likely that diseases specific to particular crop varieties and animal breeds could actually be made.
On the other hand, I have seen no information that this has been done yet. The US through the UN did plan recently to test designer diseases to kill drug crops in Columbia. The pilot project was to be a coca-killing strain of the fungus Fusarium oxysporum. But South American scientists and a number of governments complained that no information had been presented to demonstrate that the disease would be species-specific. Of course it might have been, and even if specificity has not been attained in this case, this would not mean that some other branch of government or scientists elsewhere could not be ahead on such crop-specific projects.
The international Conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention for several years has been debating controls for non-human-oriented as well as human-oriented bioweapons. Any of you who have followed these negotiations will know that the US government has blocked international agreement. It has used the argument that a treaty agreement would not offer effective protection but would compromise the US biotechnology industry’s interest in industrial confidentiality.
Be that as it may, another problem for Conference delegates from most countries has been the difficulty of agreeing on how to develop language that will cover anti-material microbes intended to degrade and destroy supplies such as fuel, asphalt, plastics, and food stocks, that have been designed to cripple infrastructures.
The fact of bioweapons against non-humans unfortunately does not seem to get much discussion on campus even though it is by no means a secret. One can even read about it on the newsstand. See for example Scientific American for June 1999, “Biological warfare against crops” by Raul Rogers, Simon Whitby, and Malcolm Dando.
Were the 9/11 terrorists and Moussaoui, in our own Minnesota back yard, looking at crop-duster planes simply to spread anthrax over human populations, as everyone seems to think? That does seems most likely if one is considering only that science knows a lot about how to make and handle weapons grade anthrax. But it is also possible that the terrorists were scouting for their higher-ups in connection with an eventual or near-term plot to use crop dusters to dust crops!
[I do not mention this to suggest that crop dusters would indeed be the best way to spread disease, but rather to underscore that bioweapons against crops is something that seems not to be on the medias radar screen.]The point here, in this section of this essay, is that if we are to be fully responsible biologists we should not be thinking only about terrorism in the context of human diseases. Looking down the road, the challenges will be much more diverse than this, including bioweapons against crops, livestock, and materials.
The Issue of University Responsibility and Leadership
A recent pre-9/11 report by the RAND Corporation for DARPA concluded that the new life sciences will need guidance and regulation as they become more powerful but that government is not up to the task, given the nature of bureaucracy and politics. Industry of course would have even less flexibility in offering social leadership due to its conflicts of interest. The scientific community also has a variety of conflicts of interest at all levels.
The RAND report suggested (with anemic optimism) that oversight and guidance would have to come from citizen-based Non Governmental Organizations. But NGOs in my opinion have relatively little power and paltry resources.
Yet the RAND report was probably a fair general, if thin, exposition
of the governance problems ahead as they could be seen at the time.
Could the shock of 9/11 now change the situation for the better, that is? Will it be a wakeup call? I don’t think that changes for the better can come automatically or even easily, considering human nature and the various structural elements involved. Difficult structural elements include ordinary bureaucratic dynamics, the pattern of quality in political leadership, and a range of conflicts of interest.
This is precisely the sort of situation where society would traditionally have expected that the academic community, protected by academic freedom and tenured salaries, and with its hands on all of the available books of knowledge, would rise to the challenge.
Rising to the challenge is not so easy, though. For example, institutional leaders may well be reluctant to get into what may appear to them to be a can of worms. Scientists may be confused by conflicting demands in the interests that they serve. Yet one can say a few words about what should be done.
Ideally biologists on campuses would become proactive rather than
simply reactive. They would organize and meet in collegial fashion, ideally
with other university scholars. They would attempt systematically to identify
areas of sensitivity and of vulnerability, both on campus and elsewhere,
related to biological research and technological developments and the potentials
for exploitation of these by terrorists. This information and suggestions
would be passed on to help local and federal officials and scientific organizations
with their plans and actions.
Collegial groups would also discuss and make suggestions regarding campus security matters.
These and related tasks would admittedly be intellectually difficult. On first reflection ones reaction might well be that virtually everything in the new life sciences could be of potential use to terrorists. So one great difficulty would be to get past this potential for emotional and intellectual gridlock and move on to establish some realistic priorities.
If a process of setting priorities begins, we will need to avoid group-think and to retain as many alert eyes as possible so as to avoid the pitfall of focusing too narrowly.
Moving past feelings of being overwhelmed, once down to business
the task still would not be simple, because sound evaluations would require
an integration of knowledge across several levels of biology, including
molecular, physiological, and even epidemiological/ecological. Unfortunately,
effective interdisciplinary brainstorming and action has a poor track record.
Perhaps the first and most obvious goal must be to keep bioweapons and materials out of the hands of terrorists. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as the saying goes.
But using the new life sciences to develop diagnostic tools and possible treatments could be also highly important. This task too will be more difficult than it might seem at first. It might seem that virtually everything in the new life sciences will contribute critically to diagnostic tools and cures. But scientists must resist falsely comforting themselves and others and, again, they must make an honest effort to set some truly important and realistic priorities rather than simply to more aggressively promote business as usual.
In addition to this type of challenge, there is the psychological problem of bondage to habits of thought. Scientists are in the habit of using rhetoric that promotes the programs that nourish their careers. Scientists are encouraged to compete for resources. New funding could become just something else to compete for, and for which to adapt rhetoric.
How scientifically and technologically realistic is it, for that matter, to expect to be able to make and have ready vaccines or other defenses against all or even most of the likely bioweapons? If this is difficult enough, how realistic is it to promise to have cures ready for surprise diseases? Should we beware of creating unrealistically high expectations, much as the French generals did who assured that the expensive Maginot line would protect France against Hitler?
Beyond the issue of professional responsibility, it is not impossible that if universities and science fail to cooperate to set realistic priorities, and simply put their routine requests in bottles with new patriotic labels, there will eventually be charges of war profiteering. Much of the public was already growing skeptical about the objectivity of scientists before 9/11. There has also been growing cynicism about privatization in science before 9/11. (Daniel Greenberg’s 2001 book Science, Money, and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion for example, is of interest in both respects. It has gotten high praise even from Scientific American.)
With 9/11 the NY Times reported that almost immediately lobbyists began swarming over Washington repackaging every plea for special interests in terms of promises to make vital contributions to the war effort. (See for example NY Times 3 Dec. 2001 p.B1 Since Sept. 11 lobbyists use new pitches for old pleas.
As impatience inevitably grows with the endless frustrations of terrorist threats, and for some time a sagging economy, it is not impossible that science could become a target for hostility and even further government control if it comes more widely to be seen as a lobby group using hype to promote its own self-interests.
It is not easy for scientists to set realistic priorities for the public good. My observation while serving on national committees that have struggled with the matter of trying to set research priorities to pass on to federal funding agencies has been that most individuals on such committees are always conscious of even vague and indirect threats to their own grants and professional positioning ambitions. Either they have expressed fears that their own research may not get priority, or they have complained and confided that if colleagues’ research did not get priority the colleagues might sabotage them in retribution. This may in the end be the most difficult barrier that would have to be overcome.
My observation is that a significant part of this problem is structural, in the sociological or anthropological sense. Especially since World War II, we have built a management system where a scientist’s emotional and professional security to a large extent has depended on grants and alliances. Whole generations of scientists now have no idea that academics might be any other way. President Eisenhower of course warned about this in a famous speech as he left office. One can only wonder how deeply this former President of Columbia University was thinking of the day when the nation might desperately need more pure forms of academic freedom.
For this reason, because of the ways in which free and responsible thinking and action can too often be constrained by the structure of the systems of career ladders and evaluation criteria that we have built, I think that, looking ahead, university administrators should reexamine the expectations by which they manage and judge scholarship. They should aim for a system that will allow for different types of academic freedom and that would free more scientists to use their knowledge to be more truly pro-active in the public interest. In my mind this is not an either/or suggestion, and mission-oriented programs and types of corporate/university relationships could still exist.
Academic Freedom Complexities
It is only natural, a sort of self-defense reaction, that many scientists may first of all worry how substantive actions addressed to the challenges presented by bioterrorism might affect their personal academic freedom as they have come to understand academic freedom at universities today.
[See also Scientific American essay January 2002, p.14 that regulation of biotechnology is implied by 9/11 but the scientists can be expected to fight it tooth and nail. (http://www.sciam.com/2002/0102issue/0102scicit1.html)]There are legitimate concerns here in my opinion, but the issues are at the same time not simple.
Academic freedom is granted by society to university scholars and
scientists with the assumption that this protection it is tied to responsibility.
In other words academic freedom was never intended to be a free ride. Similarly,
police in democracies are allowed to carry guns, but the assumption is
that they are at the same time sensitive to their social responsibilities.
If they do not behave responsibly then no one doubts that society has the
right to discipline them. All rights within institutions in democracies
stem from historical values and social expectations and permissions.
Thus freedom and responsibility are two inseparable sides of the same coin of academic freedom.
Efforts to accommodate corporate desires for campus resources have
added yet another layer of complexity to the changing concept of academic
freedom. Academic freedom was originally thought of as the protection to
explore, express, and research unpopular ideas in the search for truth.
It was understood that politics, money, and religion were constantly threatening
to corrode whatever abilities universities had to serve democracy by pursuing
objective knowledge and teaching the status of those efforts. But now in
a curious twist some industry-associated or aspiring scientists and administrators
have taken the initiative to include industrial confidentiality and faculty
entrepreneurship in their own definition of academic freedom.
Can we as a community of scientists have genuine collegial discussions and reach useful agreements on policies and recommendations under these circumstances? Would industry-affiliated scientists and administrators be in a frame of mind to take positions in opposition to industry on research and policy matters regarding disclosure etc.? Some would argue that there are inherent conflicts of interest and loyalty here, i.e. conflicts involved structurally in the sociological makeup of contemporary science. These can amount to inertial resistance to change, to inflexibility in meeting social expectations that university scientists can be expected to provide objective information on controversial issues.
I would not see this as necessarily paralyzing, though. My optimistic
view would be that, in principle at least, depending on leadership and
on local mixes of personalities among scientists, any structural difficulties
that might exist could sometimes be overcome sufficiently to allow good
institutional responses to the present and future crisis.
[The improbabilities may seem to add up to near-impossibility because of the many obstacles that human nature and institutional dynamics present but, much as above, positive action is physically possible and should not be ruled out entirely.]The 9/11 crisis could serve as a helpful catalyst. But I cannot imagine that changes will come automatically simply because opportunity may be presenting itself. Opportunities or not, the multiple levels of challenge add up to a can of worms any way one looks at it. I doubt that there are any off the shelf and one size fits all simple solutions. A critical step would be for people to become motivated and willing to work to become informed, and then to explore and negotiate among themselves what help they can offer when required.
I hope that this simple example of how corporate ties can complicate academic traditions helps to make a general point. A range of books and articles are available on this topic. They discuss ways in which growing corporate/university ties, in addition to whatever good they do, have increasingly been influencing campus and professional politics, thinking, values, and teaching, and have been changing the ways in which the academic community can use its academic freedom to contribute to the public good.
There is much cynicism in our times about the idea of Truth. But if science does not take a hard stand for truth, first and foremost, a stand that is based on substantially more than rhetorical agility, then that cynicism will naturally increase.
We have survived recent moves to de-tooth academic tenure. But critics still argue that universities have done nothing since then to prove that we deserve tenure. I think that a strong effort to be truly proactive would go a long way to restoring public comfort with the idea of tenure.
Another issue about academic freedom has been hinted at above. Science is, to a significant extent already managed. Peer-review panels for grant proposals etc., for example, have long played only a limited role in the politics of federal and state funding and foundation sponsorship. The overall balance and directions of scientific programs are influenced enormously by science policies that represent negotiations among government and industry and other constituencies, and among those in control of private foundations.
There is far too much management of science in my opinion. This has many serious negative ramifications, some of which I have discussed in my book The Anatomy of Judgment . But I am not suggesting here that this is necessarily all wrong. Rather the point is that the fact that science is in fact highly managed underscores one reason that it has been difficult to argue to knowledgeable people that scientists must be left alone to pursue research as they see fit because of the tradition of academic freedom. Rather, scientists exist in an economic, political, social, and management context and they habitually negotiate in both explicit and implicit ways for support and resources in order to pursue a fraction of the topics that might interest them.
Indeed, whole new generations of young people without any particular calling have been entering science that have not been witnesses to the changes, and many of them look upon science merely as an interesting and secure technical career. They simply accept the management of science by those who control the purse strings as a fact of life and do not stop to consider the implications.
On a conceptual map of all possible types of responsible academic freedom, our type today in science would only cover a portion of the landscape. The scruffy physicist who claimed that a plumber has more intellectual freedom than a professor might draw different boundaries than we commonly use today, for example. President Eisenhower, whose major message as he left office in 1961 was the warning that the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research [and] a government contract becomes virtually a contract for intellectual curiosity might draw yet different boundaries.
The main point in this last section is that I feel that we should
not in this crisis be thinking simply about protecting academic freedom
as it now stands. I feel that the crisis demands that we should reexamine
what academic freedom today has become in science and whether it could
be improved in the context of the present need to explore effective ways
to fight for our survival.
Afterword on Biotechnology and the Law
Society is being driven into the biotech future in a vehicle that from the perspective of the public and many of us in science has an accelerator but no brakes and no reliable steering wheel.
That there is a heavy foot on the accelerator is obvious. It is the
drive for riches. It is the need to climb out from under the mountain of
debts owed to bankers and investors. It is success in getting enormous
public subsidies from federal and local governments and private foundations.
It is the persisting if distorted faith that biotech can end hunger and
malnutrition and provide all other sorts of simple solutions to complex
problems. It is the drive for empire. And it is to be sure the fact that
the technology sometimes does live up to at least some of the more modest
But how can it be said that there is any foot on the brake and where is there room on the steering wheel for the hand of the public?
In the last couple of years biotech litigation has been moving into the courts and biotech international problems moving to diplomatic round tables. Today’s perplexing issues were all completely predictable to one who understood the science together with the socioeconomics. But such understanding was not widespread due to the limited nature of media comprehension, reporting, and discourse, industry’s massive not-to-worry public relations campaign, and due to the fact that few people were studying the developing technology from the range of angles required.
Next are a few samples of the predictable problems that to many have
1) Inflamed ambition and the high costs of biotech research, combined with intense visions of empire, predictably favored corporate mergers and buy-outs -- now groups are suing life science companies for monopolistic practices.
2) The National Academy of Science and government encouraged industry and government agencies such as Agriculture to adopt biotechnology. Government regulatory agencies accordingly have long been under instructions to help promote biotech. Thus the agencies that were forced into conflicts of interest are now being sued for not rigorously regulating the industries.
3) Genetic patents are easy to break, and thus, with the cooperation of government and industry, patenting practices have been developing that many find offensive and fundamentally at variance with democratic traditions. Patenting practices may even become more complicated as the technology explores more novel projects.
4) Nations are resorting to oblique legal means to try to force other nations to accept their biotech patents and untested products, thus straining foreign relations.
5) Organisms interbreed and disperse, and these phenomena have led to court cases concerning “biocontamination” and have raised perplexing questions about ownership and liability in the case of reproducing and dispersing organisms.
6) Biotech increases the race to develop biological weapons. Yet desires for industrial confidentiality have led the chemical and pharmaceutical industries to try to block international efforts to ban germ warfare, leading to various problems in international security and relations.
7) University researchers in biotech and other highly competitive and highly “concept-based” areas of research too commonly bypass informed consent procedures and other patient safeguards and thus patients have been abused and universities have been penalized and also are being or will be sued.
And today’s legal and contractual issues are only the tip of an iceberg. It would not be the best use of the remaining time to make a laundry list of future challenges that can be expected. The main point to be made in closing is that, as I have discussed in a number of publications (see my website), various structural elements have long been set in place and are emerging that are bound to cause problems for the rest of our life times. These structural elements involve:
1) The technical nature of genetic engineering and of the biological characteristics of natural genomes and reproducing populations, and the fact that all three involve different subject matters and require different scientific perspectives to understand.
2) Technical and social dimensions of patenting and of attempts to capitalize natural substances, modified natural substances, and living systems.
3) The extreme reductionist/determinist mind-set of genetic engineers, extending beyond laboratory approaches to philosophy and ideology.
4) The organization of the community of biotech scientists in terms of career ladders, funding, debts, relationships between universities, industry, and government.
5) The nature of industry’s financing, investment promises and debts. Its heavy reliance on “concepts,” and how these relate to competitive ambitions and pressures, and secrecy.
6) Historical experiences including the foundation decades under Rockefeller, the turmoil of the late 1970s, and then the rise of industrial biotech. The effects of each of these on perceptions within the industry of definitions of: benefits, risks, ethics, social functions, definitions of “the public.” and even their definition of “science” -- and in turn the effects of each of these on their abilities to interact with other scientists and to hear and weigh criticism.
7) Corporations have largely turned dealing with risk and ethical issues over to a “guild” of lobbyists, public relations people, and lawyers who have a vested interest in maintaining friction and conflict. Growing dependence on this guild of “middlemen” professional “fighters” has distorted information flow and communication and has made it difficult if not impossible for diverse types of scientists, CEOs, and NGOs to meet among themselves and to resolve those points of perspective and interest that are in principle resolvable and then to go on to define areas that are clearly problematical and move toward common action on these.
Let me end by saying that while the study of all these factors will take a great deal of work, it should be done -- because biotech in one form or another will remain all for the rest of human history.
Biotech will remain not only because there is too much debt to banks and investors and in terms of career investments and social dreams to turn back. Some truly wonderful biotech developments will emerge from the endlessly sloshing sea of hype and this will provide incentives to push ahead. Some genetic engineers will continue relentlessly to pursue the old dream of making order from what they consider to be the chaos of nature. Others will continue relentlessly to pursue the newer dream of becoming millionaires, or even of becoming the merchant princes of a new commercial world order. Baring some horrible genetically engineered plague that destroys the medical research infrastructure, medical biotechnology will continue even if agricultural biotech fades away. There will continually be efforts to own and to change life in one area of research and industry or another.
What can citizens do to assert their rights in this future of genetically engineered crops and wild species, patented life, promises to clone humans and control sex, to genetically fingerprint the population, and even to reengineer our species?
Progressively more people have been running out of patience and have been calling for a moratorium on at least some forms of genetic engineering, for example in agriculture, or with the human germ line. And conceivably a large moratorium movement would be sufficiently symbolic of public attitudes and of an increasingly bumpy road ahead to provide sufficient pressure to persuade the industry to allow some governance from outside their community.
But others consider a moratorium movement, or surely an actual moratorium,
too severe or impractical (What form would an actual moratorium take? Who
would call it? How could a moratorium be enforced? By what organizations?).
Or, perhaps a dedication to demanding a moratorium would not suit their
temperament. Their task will be to come forth with other truly effective
ways to get a foot on the brake and a hand on the steering wheel. This
will be difficult. The biotech community has proclaimed publicly for a
quarter of a century that it will accept or has accepted effective regulation
by government (though it has also complained and vigorously fought for
toothless regulation to “keep the public happy”). Yet the gap between rhetoric
and reality grows wider. If it has been impossible to get truly effective
regulation at this elementary level of safety, how great the task of public
oversight in the broader sense. Perhaps if we study the past and try to
learn from it we can avoid making some of the same mistakes over.
Phil Regal’s home page http://biosci.cbs.umn.edu/eeb/faculty/RegalPhilip.html
Phil Regal’s Biosafety page http://biosci.umn.edu/~pregal/biosafety.html