I was recently interviewed by Le Monde for a series on the impact of Hiroshima on science and science policy, with a particular focus on biotechnology, synthetic biology, and biosecurity. Here is the story in French. Since the translation via Google is a bit cumbersome to read, below is the English original.
On the 16 of July 1945, after the first nuclear test at large scale in New Mexico (called trinity) the American physicist Kenneth Bainbridge, head of the shooting, told Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project, "Now we are all sons of bitches ".
In your discipline, do you feel that the time the searchers might have the same revelation has been reached ? Will it be soon?
I think this analogy does not apply to biotechnology. It is crucially important to distinguish between weapons developed in a time of war and the pursuit of science and technology in a time of peace. Over the last thirty years, biotechnology has emerged as a globally important technology because it is useful and beneficial.
The development and maintenance of biological weapons is internationally outlawed, and has been for decades. The Trinity test, and more broadly the Manhattan Project, was a response to what the military and political leaders of the time considered an existential threat. These were actions taken in a time of world war. The scientists and engineers who developed the U.S. bombs were almost to a person ambivalent about their roles – most saw the downsides, yet were also convinced of their responsibility to fight against the Axis Powers. Developing nuclear weapons was seen as imperative for survival.
The scale of the Manhattan Project (both in personnel and as a fraction of GDP) was unprecedented, and remains so. In contrast to the exclusive governmental domain of nuclear weapons, biotechnology has been commercially developed largely with private funds. The resulting products – whether new drugs, new crop traits, or new materials – have clear beneficial value to our society.
Do you have this feeling in other disciplines? Which ones ? Why?
No. There is nothing in our experience like the Manhattan Project and nuclear weapons. It is easy to point to the participants’ regrets, and to the long aftereffects of dropping the bomb, as a way to generate debate about, and fear of, new technologies. The latest bugaboos are artificial intelligence and genetic engineering. But neither of these technologies – even if they can be said to qualify as mature technologies – is even remotely as impactful as nuclear weapons.
What could be the impact of a "Hiroshima" in your discipline?
In biosecurity circles, you often hear discussion of what would happen if there were “an event”. It is often not clear what that event might be, but it is presumed to be bad. The putative event could be natural or it could be artificial. Perhaps the event might kill many people as Hiroshima. (Though that would be hard, as even the most deadly organisms around today cannot wipe out populated cities in an instant.) Perhaps the event would be the intentional use of a biological weapon, and perhaps that weapon would be genetically modified in some way to enhance its capabilities. This would obviously be horrible. The impact would depend on where the weapon came from, and who used it. Was it the result of an ongoing state program? Was it a sample deployed, or stolen, from discontinued program? Or was it built and used by a terrorist group? A state can be held accountable by many means, but we are finding it challenging to hold non-state groups to account. If the organism is genetically modified, it is possible that there will be pushback against the technology. But biotechnology is producing huge benefits today, and restrictions motivated by the response to an event would reduce those benefits. It is also very possible that biotechnology will be the primary means to provide remedies to bioweapons (probably vaccines or drugs), in which case an event might wind up pushing the technology even faster.
After 1945, physicists, including Einstein, have committed an ethical reflection on their own work. has your discipline done the same ? is it doing the same today ?
Ethical reflection has been built into biotechnology from its origins. The early participants met at Asilomar to discuss the implications of their work. Today, students involved in the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition are required to complete a “policy and practices” (also referred to as “ethical, legal, and social implications” (ELSI)) examination of their project. This isn’t window dressing, by any means. Everyone takes it seriously.
Do you think it would be necessary to rase the public awarereness about the issues related to your work?
Well, I’ve been writing and speaking about this issue for 15 years, trying to raise awareness of biotechnology and where it is headed. My book, “Biology is Technology”, was specifically aimed at encouraging public discussion. But we definitely need to work harder to understand the scope and impact of biotechnology on our lives. No government measures very well the size of the biotechnology industry – either in terms of revenues or in terms of benefits – so very few people understand how economically pervasive it is already.
What is, according to you, the degree of liberty of scientists face to political and industrial powers that will exploit the results of the scientific works?
Scientists face the same expectation of personal responsibility as every other member of the societies to which they belong. That’s pretty simple. And most scientists are motivated by ideals of truth, the pursuit of knowledge, and improving the human condition. That is one reason why most scientists publish their results for others to learn from. But it is less clear how to control scientific results after they are published. I would turn your question in another direction, and say politicians and industrialists should be responsible for how they use science, rather than putting this all on scientists. If you want to take this back to the bomb, the Manhattan Project was a massive military operation in a time of war, implemented by both government and the private sector. It relied on science, to be sure, but it was very much a political and industrial activity – you cannot divorce these two sides of the Project.
Do you think about accurate measures [?] to prevent further Hiroshima?
I constantly think about how to prevent bad things from happening. We have to pay attention to how new technologies are developed and used. That is true of all technologies. For my part, I work domestically and internationally to make sure policy makers understand where biotechnology is headed and what it can do, and also to make sure it is not misused.
But I think the question is rather off target. Bombing Hiroshima was a conscious decision made by an elected leader in a time of war. It was a very specific sort of event in a very specific context. We are not facing any sort of similar situation. If the intent of the question is to make an analogy to intentional use of biological weapons, these are already illegal, and nobody should be developing or storing them under any circumstances. The current international arms control regime is the way to deal with it. If the intent is to allude to the prevention of “bad stuff”, then this is something that every responsible citizen should be doing anyway. All we can do is pay attention and keep working to ensure that technologies are not used maliciously.