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Assessing the Risks and Benefits of Advances in Science and Technology: Exploring the Potential of Qualitative Frameworks

Katherine Bowman, Jo L. Husbands, Daniel Feakes, Peter F. McGrath, Nancy Connell, Kara Morgan
Date posted:
June 17, 2020
Publication type:
Health Secur. 2020 May/Jun;18(3):186-194
Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.
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Continuing rapid advances in science and technology both pose potential risks and offer potential benefits for the effective implementation of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). The lack of commonly accepted methods for assessing relevant risks and benefits present significant challenges to building common understandings that could support policy choices. This article argues that qualitative frameworks can provide the basis to structure BWC discussions about potential risks and benefits, reveal areas of agreement and disagreement, and provide a basis for continuing dialogue. It draws on the results of a workshop held in Geneva during the 2019 BWC Meetings of Experts. A diverse group of international experts were given the opportunity to apply 2 qualitative frameworks developed specifically to assess potential biosecurity concerns arising from emerging science and technology to BWC-relevant case examples. Participants discussed how such frameworks might be adapted and put into action to help support the BWC. They also began a discussion of how a comparable framework to assess potential benefits could be developed.

The security implications of continuing, rapid advances in science and technology are commanding increasing international attention. In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly marking the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, for example, Secretary-General Gutierrez referred to the “the dark side” of technology as 1 of “four horsemen’ in our midst—four looming threats that endanger 21st-century progress and imperil 21st-century possibilities.”1 He devoted a section of his agenda for disarmament, Securing Our Common Future, to addressing the challenges of emerging technologies for future generations.2 Similar discussions can be found among international and regional organizations and venues where the potential risks and rewards of science and technology are essential elements of their agendas.

One such venue is the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction, commonly known as the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). The Convention, which entered into force in 1975, was the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning an entire category of weapons. It effectively prohibits the development, production, acquisition, transfer, retention, stockpiling, and use of biological weapons. The Convention is also a key element in the international community's efforts to address the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. A total of 183 countries are now parties to the Convention and have agreed to abide by its provisions.

In addition to the review conferences held every 5 years, where member states may make formal decisions, the BWC currently functions through annual intergovernmental meetings held in Geneva, Switzerland. Since these meetings began in 2003, the scope and provisions of the convention have been adjusted and enhanced at the 2006, 2011, and 2016 review conferences. Between the review conferences, 5 technical Meetings of Experts are held in the middle of each year, followed by a more political meeting at the end of that same year. Each technical meeting focuses on a specific topic that was agreed upon by all BWC States Parties at the previous annual intergovernmental meeting. For example, one technical meeting was mandated to review developments in the field of science and technology related to the BWC, such as biological risk assessment and management. The outcomes and recommendations from the Meetings of Experts, will be considered by the Ninth BWC Review Conference to be held in 2021.

In 2017, BWC States Parties agreed to include discussions of “biological risk assessment and management” as part of a comprehensive package. This was not a novel addition to the agenda of BWC meetings, however. From the mid-2000s onward, for example, references to topics such as “risk assessment” and “risk management strategies” can be found in the common understandings agreed by BWC States Parties. The BWC meetings between 2012 and 2015 took these deliberations further by including a specific agenda item on “possible measures for strengthening national biological risk management, as appropriate, in research and development involving new science and technology developments of relevance to the Convention.”3 At all times, as discussed further below, BWC States Parties have been careful to ensure that references to the “risks” posed by advances in science and technology are balanced by references to the “benefits” of such advances and that measures aimed at mitigating risks do not hamper legitimate activities.*

Although a range of methods exists for assessing potential risks from scientific and technological advances, a significant challenge that emerged during the BWC discussions is that no approach for reaching common understandings is accepted by all States Parties. In addition, few, if any, comparable approaches are available for assessing potential benefits and comparing them with potential risks. This article presents the argument that qualitative frameworks can provide a basis to structure BWC discussions about both potential risks and benefits, reveal areas of agreement and disagreement, and provide the basis for a more constructive consideration of the implications of advances in science and technology. The results from a pilot project held in Geneva during the 2019 BWC Meetings of Experts illustrate how such frameworks might be put into action.



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