Expert Report

Life Sciences and Related Fields: Trends Relevant to the Biological Weapons Convention (2011)

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In October 2010, almost 80 scientists and policy makers from 28 countries came together at a workshop to discuss how trends in the life sciences and related fields might be relevant to biological and chemical weapons nonproliferation as laid out in the Biological Weapons Convention. Article 1 of the convention prohibits "microbial or other biological agents, or toxins…of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes."

For example, are new or novel types of agents and materials being developed that are not covered by the treaty? More broadly, could trends in science and technology affect the implementation of the treaty in national policies and regulatory systems? This report presents findings and conclusions drawn from the workshop and additional committee discussions, organized around three fundamental and frequently cited trends that affect the scope and operation of the convention:

-The rapid pace of change in the life sciences and related fields;
-The increasing diffusion of life sciences research capacity and its applications, both internationally and beyond traditional research institutions; and
-The extent to which additional scientific and technical disciplines beyond biology are increasingly involved in life sciences research.

The report concludes that none of the developments surveyed currently falls outside the scope of Article I. The language of the treaty, as reinforced by the common understandings reached in prior review conferences, provides a degree of flexibility that has so far allowed it to adapt to progress in the life sciences and related scientific fields. However, as new developments arise, including in fields of research that this report did not assess in depth, there may be surprise discoveries; hence, continued monitoring of advances in the life sciences and evaluation of their relevance for the Biological Weapons Convention will be important.

The report also concludes that every major article of the treaty will be affected by the developments surveyed. The scientific community has a potential role in helping to monitor trends in science and technology to assess their implications for the Biological Weapons Convention, and a number of mechanisms for input and advice could be considered.

Key Messages

  • No discoveries have fundamentally altered the nature of life sciences research since 2006. However, advances in science and technology on many fronts have increased our overall understanding and exploitation of biological systems, despite their daunting complexity.
  • Particularly rapid progress in the power of, and access to, enabling technologies, including high throughput laboratory technologies, computational and communication resources, have had the following consequences:
    (a)Collaborations between individual investigators, global networks of researchers and the formation of "virtual laboratories" are growing trends in the life sciences;
    (b)Increasing access to sophisticated reagents such as standardized DNA "parts" and easy-to-use commercial kits and services has placed some hitherto advanced technologies within the reach of less highly trained practitioners, and has expanded the global spread of life sciences research and its industrial applications.
    (c)Although first class research continues to rely heavily upon tacit knowledge, the availability of web-based technologies is facilitating the transfer of tacit knowledge through the creation of worldwide formal or informal learning communities or partnerships.
    (d)These technologies reduce the barriers to the spread of science and technology knowledge for responsible, educational purposes, thus creating more favorable conditions for international cooperation in the peaceful application of the life sciences; At the same time, these same barriers also serve as impediments to misuse.
  • Multiple disciplines, including the life, chemical, physical, mathematical, computational, and engineering sciences, are converging; this trend will continue and is relevant to the Biological Weapons Convention.
  • The field of bioreactor research and the use of transgenic organisms to produce commercially or medically important proteins have seen impressive advances. These have reduced the time needed to produce proteins and have the potential to affect the scale of the facilities required. This has obvious implications for the Biological Weapons Convention, for example with regard to the measures States Parties need to take to implement the convention and to prevent the use of biological or toxin agents for hostile purposes.
  • The development of microbial forensics illustrates one way through which life sciences research from around the world can support the Biological Weapons Convention and create better tools to investigate and discriminate between natural and deliberate disease outbreaks.
  • Notable technical advances have been made at the level of individual-use biosensor detector systems, although there are limitations to what can be achieved given that sensor development must balance factors such as specificity, sensitivity, range of target molecules analyzed, and type of use.
  • The combination of approaches including improved biosensors, epidemiological monitoring, vaccine research, forensics, and other laboratory investigations can contribute to effective disease detection, investigation, and response systems worldwide.
  • These advances underscore the potential for more States Parties to contribute to the implementation of the Biological Weapons Convention, for example by expanding their global public health and disease surveillance capabilities, or by playing leadership roles in capacity building in their regions.
  • Certain scientific and technical roadblocks (e.g., drug delivery technologies) impede future progress, but once overcome, would presage a phase of rapid development.
  • Conclusion 1: None of the trends surveyed for this report currently falls outside the scope of Article I. The language of the treaty, as reinforced by the common understandings reached in prior review conferences, provides a degree of flexibility that has so far allowed it to adapt to progress in the life sciences and related scientific fields. The committee recognizes, however, that as new developments arise, including in fields of research that this report did not assess in depth, there may be surprise discoveries; hence, continued monitoring of advances in the life sciences and evaluation of their relevance for the Biological Weapons Convention will be important.
  • Conclusion 2: Beyond the question of whether these trends pose fundamental challenges to the scope of the treaty, every major article of the treaty will be affected by the developments surveyed. The trends may pose challenges to the implementation of some aspects, but they also offer important opportunities to support the operation of the convention.
  • Conclusion 3: The three broad trends that provided the organization of the report—the increasing pace, diffusion, and convergence of science and technology—will continue for the foreseeable future. The diversity of the fields potentially relevant to the Biological Weapons Convention and the potential for surprise discoveries make efforts to predict developments problematic. Within these trends, however, particular fields will be affected in important ways by factors such as commercial interests that drive developments at different rates, as well as roadblocks that impede progress. Gaining a deeper understanding of the drivers and roadblocks would provide a more meaningful picture of how and when continuing science and technology developments are likely to affect the convention.
  • Conclusion 4: There are potential roles for the scientific community in helping to monitor trends in science and technology and to assess their implications for the Biological Weapons Convention, and there are a number of mechanisms by which input and advice could be provided. The most effective starting point for the 7th Review Conference, therefore, would be to address the functions that such advice and analysis will serve for the future operation of the convention, including increasing the capacity of States Parties to participate fully in its implementation.