Biosecurity 101

Continuing advances in the life sciences over the last 50 years, supported by enabling technologies such as vastly increased computing power, have brought great benefits for health, the economy, and the environment, and promise far more in the future.  Along with the hopes, however, have come concerns that the knowledge, tools and techniques gained through these developments might also be used in state or terrorist pursuit of biological weapons (BW).  Yet even work in the life sciences that might have the greatest apparent potential for misuse may offer significant benefits as well.  The possibility that advances in the life sciences intended for legitimate and beneficent purposes might also be used for malevolent ends is often called the “dual use” dilemma.

This is somewhat different from the classic definition in defense and security of dual use that focuses largely on equipment or technology – high performance computers, advanced materials, “stealth” technology — that could be applied for either civilian or military purposes.  This definition reflects increasing attention to developments in science and technology that, although arising largely from academia and the commercial sector rather than from military-related research, raise significant concerns for security.  Nanotechnology, microcomputing and civil nuclear power are three other areas that are often cited as posing similar dual use issues.

Current concerns about the dual use potential of advances in the life sciences date largely from the beginning of this century and reflect different perceptions – and sometimes sharp disagreement – about the relative risk between the development of national biological weapons programs and the potential for bioterrorism, and between these and other threats to international security.   President Yeltsin’s admission in early 1992, following years of accusations, that the Soviet Union had maintained a huge clandestine biological weapons program, in violation of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC), came as the revelations of Iraq’s efforts to create biological weapons were unfolding in the wake of the first Gulf War. The first World Trade Center bombings in 1993, the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995, and the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo attacks in Tokyo with chemical agents, spurred increasing concern with “catastrophic” terrorism.”

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent anthrax letters in October of that year, turned those already existing concerns into the highest national security priority, particularly in the United States.  In response, the United States and a number of other countries have increased their funding and focus on efforts to prevent, prepare for, and respond to threats of bioterrorism.  U.S. funding, by far the largest, totaled an estimated $60 billion between Fiscal Years 2001 and 2011.

In addition to increased concerns about terrorism and state BW programs, a number of articles in scientific journals sparked controversy about whether some research that might be misused should not be conducted, or if conducted, should not be published.  Critics charged such publications could provide a “blueprint” or “roadmap” for terrorists or countries seeking to carry out bioterrorism or to acquire biological weapons.  This is another example of a longrunning debate about whether and how to limit scientific research and technological development to reduce potential security risks.

The National Academies have been actively engaged in studying and providing advice about questions related to biosecurity, biodefense, relevant aspects of public health, and broader discussions of the relationship between science and security.  Over the last decade, every part of the Academies has produced reports and conducted meetings and other projects.  This website is intended to provide a way to access those resources more easily.