Alex Hamilton – ‘Dangerous tools’ in ‘dangerous hands’: How synthetic biology is imagined as a ‘bioterrorist threat’


Event Date: 22 February 2011
The River Room
King’s College London, Strand Campus
London WC2R 2LS

Problematising Danger

ESRC Seminar Series- Contemporary Biopolitical Security


Co-sponsored by the Biopolitics of Security Network,
and the Emerging Securities Research Unit @ Keele University

R. Alexander Hamilton
London School of Economics





Introduction to synthetic biology and synthetic biology ‘security concerns’

Synthetic biology is an emerging science that seeks to make biology engineerable, permitting the rational design and construction of novel living systems. Where this aim suggests many opportunities, possibly ushering in themuch-anticipated ‘century of biology’, offering new avenues for theproduction of health and wealth, it also suggeststhe possibility ofnew, uncontrollable dangers. The reason being, some argue,is because if more people, working in less formal research settings, begin to design and construct novel living systems, they might also use this technology to create novel pathogens, expanding the scope of the ‘bioterrorist threat’.Assessing how this threat might manifest itself, where its dangers lie, and how they might be managed, however, is problematic. Many uncertainties surround synthetic biology, including uncertainties about the current state of the art, its future potential, and the skills and motives of prospective ‘bioterrorists’, as well as the promising yet problematiccommunities of emergingamateur biologists – referred to, sometimes interchangeably,as‘do-it-yourself biologists’; ‘citizen scientists’; ‘garage biologists’; ‘biohobbyists’ or ‘biohackers’. In brief, the synthetic biology ‘threat’ is described as complex, and seemingly open-ended, which challenges a risk calculus that depends on stable factsabout the world.

Research aims and methods

This research broadly aims to map and critically examine the social and political processes that permit synthetic biology to be viewed as a security problem for which diverse security solutions are posed. My research is concerned with several distinct features of the synthetic biology security debate, as articulated by experts engaged in assessing and managing emerging risks in the life sciences, including: (1) how synthetic biology is understood as a security problem; (2) the forms of measurement used to qualify and quantify the synthetic biology threat; and (3) the modes of anticipatory governance deployed in the face of uncertainty. In the course of myresearch, I have read widely on the science of synthetic biology and its perceived security implications. I have also complimented this scientific and technical literature review with a series of interviews with a ‘constellation of experts’ (Rabinow 2008), including risk analysts, military planners, law enforcement agents, public health officials, prominent synthetic biologists, and others with a stated interest, and perceived expertise, in negotiating the security challenges posed by synthetic biology.This research principally focuses on the synthetic biology security threat as it is framed in the United States, where biosecurity considerations play an integral role in the synthetic biology debate, and are viewed as the key risks posed by the science.

Conceptual framework

Underlying this research is a conceptual interest in how threats are constructed –that is, how objects, knowledge, and people are identified as security problems; how these problems are elaborated as threats, and how these threats are, at least ostensibly, governed. Although drawing on aspects ofsecuritization theory (Wæver 1995), this research is concerned not only with the naming of security problems, but also with the mechanisms that permit security problems to be rendered knowable and actionable. Of particular interest, then, are the specific rationalities and technologies of risk that are deployed in the name taming chance, including their scope and limitations. To an extent, this research agrees with Beck’s (1992) notion of ‘risk society’, acknowledging that modern, self-generated catastrophespose uncertainties that challenge the logic of probabilistic risk assessment.Yet it also acknowledges, as a number of risk theorists have pointed out (Ewald 2002; Erickson and Doyle 2004; O’Malley 2004),that despite the perceived open-endedness of catastrophic threats, including climate change, terrorism, natural disasters and economic crisis, concerted efforts are being made (by risk analysts, military planners and others) to render these events knowable; with the presumption that they can be managed. Therefore, this research strives to suspend judgment on what types of threats synthetic biology mightactuallyenable – that is, whether they are actually calculable risks or incalculable dangers–in favor of focusing on the words and actions of those presently engaged in assessing and managing the unruly aspects of synthetic biology, and synthetic biologists, in pursuit of a sustainable science. Their words and actions, of course, are no less instrumental in shaping perceptions of the synthetic biology threat, including the knowledge and people bound up with it,as well as mediating possible responses to this threat.

Preliminary findings

As a site of emergence, characterized by uncertainty and rapid change, synthetic biology provides a unique vantage point from which to explore how modern technological threats are assembled; how they are constituted; and what strategies of preemptive governance are proposed to manage them. What stands out at this stage of my research is the manner in which synthetic biology and its practitioners are variously framed as dangerous and risky. Dangerous, to the extent that security experts suggest that DNA synthesis technology might be used to synthesize all manner of dangerous, unknown and potentially unknowable, pathogens; as well as to the extent that this technology is accessible to an expanding universe of amateur scientists, who might deliberately, or accidently, cause grave harm. And,risky, to the extent that practical responses are nonetheless proposed to mitigate the likelihoodof potential harm, including a variety of strategies aimed at screening orders for synthetic DNA (increasingly purchased from commercial ‘gene foundries’), filtering out dangerous sequences and suspicious buyers, while at the same time questioning the dangerousness of synthetic DNA outside of a ‘natural’ cellular context, and acknowledging the difficulties of pinpointing dangerous people. In this context, assessing and managing risk, while drawing on certain empirical indices, such as statistical matches between ‘safe’ DNA and DNA ‘of concern’ or profiles of ‘credible’ buyers and buyers ‘of concern’, depends equally, and perhaps primarily, on making subjective distinctions between who or what should count as ‘dangerous’. Such an approach to managing threats is largely about drawing boundaries, establishing limits, and erecting barriers, in an effort to support the productive aspects of synthetic biology while preempting the destructive ones. As there seem to be few indications of government shutting down, or even greatly curtailing, synthetic biology (at least in the United States), precautionary risk management, in its most restrictive form, does not appear to be on the political agenda (Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues 2010). Instead, efforts are being made to monitor developments in synthetic biology, and the activities of synthetic biologists, and to take measures to lessen the impact, or at least the liability, that might result from the misuse of synthetic biology.


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