Is science going faster than policy?

14 January, 2011

 

Richard Burge, Chief Executive, writes:

Has the pace of scientific discovery and change overhauled the capacities of the non-proliferation regimes set up to guard us from the perils of biological and toxic weapons?

  

The past six months have seen participants here at Wilton Park reiterate that concern, one that has featured constantly in our work on WMD, especially biological weapons, over the past few years.

 

The evidence is alarming – biology has its own Moores Law (the claim that computing power doubles every two years) about the cost and accessibility of technology that  enables life to be manipulated and changed at the genetic level. This is how pathogens can be adapted, and medical advances for diseases can be accelerated, or biological weapons created. These are the technologies of gene sequencing and gene synthesis. 

 

Robert Carlson, a speaker here in September, has discovered that the cost of sequencing a single base of DNA has dropped from around US$ 50,000 in 1995 to less than one tenth of a cent now!  Genetic synthesis only really became possible at scale at the turn of the century, yet in that period alone the cost has nose-dived from US$ 60,000 to less than US$ 500 now. 

 

This has created the phenomenon of garage biology, where simple labs can be easily and cheaply created in small industrial units using young biologists with skills that were only dreamt of 15 years ago (and anybody can order a gene sequencer for $ 40,000 via the internet). 

 

So, potentially dangerous scientific advances, once the preserve of a relatively exclusive group with access to expensive high-end technological capabilities, are now more easily accessible to more people. Of course, there is a good side. It makes innovation and the prosperity that flows from it more accessible to small scale entrepreneurs, who are the biggest source of jobs in the world.

 

But an increasingly persistent question at Wilton Park is; How do we make and manage international policy agreements that are sufficiently fleet of foot to keep pace with the accelerating capability of science?

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