The substantive focus for this project derives from the observation that almost all major areas of science and technology have been employed for destructive purposes. Particularly since World War I, science and technology have been increasingly intertwined with the development of new means of warfare. In this context, claims about the revolution in understanding enabled by modern life sciences and medicine raise an unsettling question: might the knowledge being produced undermine – rather than further – human wellbeing? In short, might the life sciences become the death sciences?
While these questions have been posed in the past, far reaching questions are being asked today about the responsibilities of those associated with the life sciences; questions felt by some to be inadequately addressed to date. While at present it is reasonable to conclude the biological weapon capabilities of sub-state groups, individuals, and even certain states are not highly effective, this may well change due to the continuing development of civilian scientific techniques, the commercial application of research, and the movement of scientists internationally. The issue here is not simply about the proliferation of laboratory agents and equipment, but how the information and techniques generated through advanced life science research are enabling new capabilities. Concern with the latter requires scrutinizing matters such as access to information in the open scientific literature.
In the absence of positive and integrated action in the years ahead, a worry is that many more individuals and groups will have the capabilities required to cause disruption and harm. Also, this could undermine public trust in science. The positive and integrated programme of activities needed to prevent destructive uses of scientific knowledge will require active engagement from a broad range of communities. Attempts to address the destructive potential of life sciences to date have been preliminary, patchy, and problematic:
The importance of sustained interdisciplinary professional attention to the destructive potential of life sciences knowledge and techniques, as well as the limited practitioner attention to it in recent decades, support the importance of explaining why certain matters get neglected.
Aims and Objectives
This proposal aims to address two questions:
A starting point for the empirical focus of this proposal is the contention that it is essential for social analysis to address two questions: i) how issues are identified as matters of concerns in the first place; and ii) how do they become formulated as problems in need of redress? The innovative move proposed in this application is a shift, in a sense, backwards.
The principal objective is to assess what is not taking place in relation to the security governance of destructive uses of the life sciences through normative, theoretical and empirical examination, while also considering how the study of the lack of attention to certain issues in this area can inform normative and empirical analysis in general.
Balmer, Dando, Evans, Gould and Rappert will all produce and disseminate reports as part of the project. Prof Rappert will produce an extended paper on the methodological and epistemological considerations associated with researching non-issues. Prof. Dando will survey major trends in human cognitive enhancement in neuroscience; both with regard to scientific developments and well as social and ethical commentary. Dr. Evans will analyze differences in policy regard for the security dimensions of synthetic biology in the US and Europe. Dr. Gould in collaboration with Prof. Rappert will examine the historical framing of the South African Apartheid era biological and chemical weapons programme. Prof Balmer will undertake a historical case study of the construction of genetic engineering and biological weapons as a non-issue by the UK government in the late 1970s and its eventual re-positioning as a matter of concern in the 1980s. At a later date, Rappert plans to undertake another strand of empirical research designed to contrast how security dimensions are and are not regarded as matters of concern though an analysis of current international efforts to identify and assess so-called dual use ‘experiments of concern'.
Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology; University of Exeter; Exeter EX4 4QJ; United Kingdom
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