Keeping Good Science from Going Bad: preventing the malicious use of life science and biotechnology

Dr Gerald L. Epstein, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Biological, Chemical, Nuclear, and Radiological Policy, US Department of Homeland Security

Co-presented with the Centre for International Security Studies and the Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Disease and Biosecurity at the University of Sydney

7 August, 2014

Advances in life sciences and biotechnology offer tremendous potential to contribute significantly to health, welfare, and quality of life. However, the scientific and technological base that makes these benefits possible can be subverted to do harm. As a result, illicit applications cannot be controlled without constraining legitimate ones. This so-called “dual use dilemma” is a particular challenge in the life sciences because both the benefits and the risks can be large. Everyone deserves access to cheap and nutritious food, clean water, medical care, environmental protection, and economic advancement – benefits that biotechnology can help bring about. At the same time, the knowledge that confers these benefits can be turned to exacerbate disease, rather than mitigate it.

Biotechnology can make disease organisms more deadly, more contagious, or more able to defeat therapeutics and vaccines. It can also enhance the ability of malefactors to produce and disseminate disease agents. This talk will review how awareness of the dual-use dilemma in the life sciences has evolved, and how the United States government is working with relevant professional communities – amidst an inherently global scientific enterprise – to protect the beneficial applications of advances in the life sciences and biotechnology, while frustrating the efforts of those who would abuse those advances for harm.

Dr Gerald Epstein

Dr Gerald L Epstein joined the Department of Homeland Security as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Policy in January 2012. He came to the Department from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where he directed their Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy from October 2009 to January 2012. From 2003 through 2009, he was Senior Fellow for Science and Security in the Homeland Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and also taught a course on “Science, Technology, and Homeland Security” as an Adjunct Professor with the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. He has directed a project at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government on the relationship between civil and military technologies, and he is a co-author of Beyond Spinoff: Military and Commercial Technologies in a Changing World (1992). He has also taught at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs.

Dr. Epstein is a Fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He serves on the editorial board for the journal Biosecurity and Bioterrorism and has served on the Biological Threats Panel of the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on International Security and Arms Control and the Biological Sciences Experts Group for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. He also served on the National Academies’ Committee on Science, Security, and Prosperity, which produced the report Beyond Fortress America: National Security Controls on Science and Technology in a Globalized World (2009). He received S.B. degrees in physics and in electrical engineering from MIT and a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California at Berkeley.