Innovation and Security in Biotechnology: Deliberating Foresight Knowledge for Biosecurity Policy

By Roman Kernchen

Innovation and Security in Biotechnology: Deliberating Foresight Knowledge for Biosecurity Policy

The production and utilisation of foresight knowledge, such as prognoses, scenarios, outlooks and narratives about possible futures, has become an eminent feature of the action at the interface of life sciences and society and a subject of increasing interest in scientific and technological studies. In many areas of biotechnology, actors are striving to make conclusive statements about developments in the future. Corporate leaders try to inspire investors with business plans. Military strategists attempt to construct bioterrorism scenarios. Analysts in the financial sector estimate biomedical markets. Multi-disciplinary committees discuss potential ethical concerns. Journalists highlight and dramatise upcoming trends. And the popular culture disseminates science fiction images to a broad audience. In conclusion, many forms of anticipatory intelligence have a role to play in the process of projecting and monitoring, supporting and challenging, controlling and regulating, revising and redesigning the future of life sciences [1].

Notably, recent advances in biotechnology, in particular the gene-editing technology and synthetic biology, have significantly improved our capabilities in biological engineering, along with progress in the areas of information technology and robotics [2]. A systematic foresight analysis to identify, assess and prioritise new scientific and technological approaches is needed to address the challenges and opportunities arising from such progress [3]. In this respect, the analysis of the potential for misuse of biotechnological advances is of growing importance [4]. The fast pace of transformation within the bio sciences and biotechnology is simultaneously presenting new opportunities for building technological capabilities and for enhancing security vulnerabilities [5]. The threat spectrum will be expanded to include new possibilities for disruption or manipulation of biological systems and processes in humans, plants and animals, in addition to future threats from edited pathogens. The range of potential vectors, targets and effects will grow fast as genome editing becomes available for research and exploitation of biology. Genome editing potentially could be used to develop new biological weapons, including those that can affect the microbiome and the immune and nervous systems. The diversity, flexibility and accuracy offered by new genome editing techniques, such as CRISPR does increase the target range, which comprises the number, accessibility and severity of vulnerabilities that could be used to cause damage, either maliciously or accidentally.

In order to assess the future capability of malicious utilisation of biotechnological innovation, a foresight analyst should reflect on the use of the relevant and emerging technologies. These include ease of use (if a technology is not sophisticated to use, it is assumed to be more widely used), speed of technology development, barriers to use (technological barriers such as inability to predict the function from a certain DNA sequence), synergies with other technologies and overall costs. The analyst would also have to assess the potential for using technology as a weapon. These considerations would include the production and supply capability of the technology, the extent of the casualty when used as a weapon, the foreseeability of the outcome (to what extent a malicious actor could be certain that if a technology were to be used to make a weapon, he would have the envisaged outcome), the necessary testing and the reliability of the technology, i.e. its predictability and effectiveness [6].

Relevance of Tacit Knowledge

The assessment of future potentials for malicious use of biotechnological innovations should also include the existence of tacit knowledge. The relevance of tacit knowledge is often overseen in the prevalent account of the dual-use threat in the context of advanced life sciences, in particular with regard to synthetic biology, where the emphasis is more on access to biological materials and published research than on human practices and institutional aspects [7]. The recognition of the importance of tacit knowledge, however, is essential for a more differentiated foresight assessment of biosecurity threats. If tacit knowledge remains important in synthetic biology, it means on one side that it will not be easily available to external parties, and that will alleviate concerns about the dual-use threat. On the other side, supposing that synthetic biology is an engineering discipline, and if this implicates overcoming the barriers of tacit knowledge, then it would mean that synthetic biology could become more accessible to external parties, and this would increase the threat of dual use. In this way, biosecurity concerns will be raised by underlining the more extreme presentation of the ability of synthetic biology to engineer biological systems.

Horizon scanning as a systematic exploration of potential threats and opportunities

A promising method in this respect is horizon scanning, which provides a way to screen different sources of information to search for weak signals that, when contextualized, may indicate that an issue is emerging [8]. Horizon scanning concepts have evolved over the years and have been used to illuminate future directions and develop recommendations for scientific progress in a variety of areas, including nanobiotechnology, new and enabling technologies in biodefense, genomic testing, research, and policy prioritization [9]. The method wasn’t conceived with the objective of predicting the future, but to examine possible developments with the aim of taking into account the likely impacts and the possible reactions required. Horizon scanning has been formulated as a systematic exploration of potential threats and opportunities to society and politics that are currently only insufficiently identified.

Red Teaming for the prediction of biothreats

Similarly, red teaming is considered to be an effective foresight method in the context of security considerations on advances in biotechnology. By deliberately taking an adverse perspective, red teaming allows a better understanding and prediction of security threats [10]. It has been used as a methodology by military, government, and private sectors to better understand future threats and vulnerabilities and to guide decision-making on how to respond to a threat, whether it be national security or business competition. Red team exercises were used to strengthen national security, determine indicators and vulnerability targets for terrorist attacks, and develop response strategies. The use of red teaming as a method that can contribute to deeper comprehension, preparedness, detection and response to biological threats could provide the required tools to enhance national security. Effectively, various government agencies, advisory committees, and private, non-profit organizations dealing with biosecurity have made recommendations to use or extend red teaming to address biothreats. It also can support analysts in assessing which threats are perceived to be more probable or frequently exploited, resulting in better decision making on preparedness. A wide range of pathogens exist that could be weaponized, and the development of technologies for detection and the vaccination, medication and other medical countermeasures must in many cases be specifically tailored to each pathogen.


Considering the insight-based challenges of predicting future scientific and societal developments, it is understandable that anticipatory knowledge of the biosciences is often seen as tentative or not reliable. Yet although these difficulties exist, foresight methods remain an essential instrument for prediction and monitoring. A requirement for successfully responding to biological threats is the creation of analytical approaches that are sophisticated and comprehensive enough to reflect current and future complexity and dynamics; and the development of strategic foresight instruments that, combined, enhance the capacity to reduce biological risks to the lowest possible levels. Biosecurity can in this sense be considered as risk insurance, with access to good information and the implementation of good decision-making processes enabling preventive action to be taken and the risks avoided to be weighed against the costs of action.


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Roman Kernchen
Scientific Director

Roman Kernchen is scientific director at Eyvor Institute. He received his Ph.D. (Dr.rer.nat.) from Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms University, Bonn and then held permanent academic positions at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) and the Fraunhofer-Institute for Technological Trend Analysis. His current research interests centre around data-driven approaches for risk forecasting and analysis. He is especially interested in assessing climate change risks and vulnerabilities to businesses and industries, regional security, and sustainable development. Topics of interest include innovation research, risk studies, technology options assessment, data mining, topic analysis, security studies, and governance of emerging technologies.