How is the FBI thinking about its relationship with bio hacking communities as they attempt to support innovation while also limit the risks from DIY biotech?
— Pinar Yanardag (@PINguAR) July 21, 2017
Here at the Defiance Conference, we’re joined by Ed You, a supervisory special agent in the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, Biological Countermeasures Unit. You is responsible for creating programs and activities to coordinate and improve FBI and interagency efforts to identify, assess, and respond to biological threats or incidents.
Investigations are inherently reactive, says Ed. After September 11th, the FBI decided to rethink their mission to focus on prevention. Ed is a molecular biologist by training, and now that the FBI has focused on prevention, they’re hiring more people like him. Next, he talks about “WMD Coordinators,” people like special agent Josh Cantor who work in the FBI’s field offices on biological weapons. They work to establish partnerships with hospitals, researchers, and others who understand the risks before something happens.
The 21st century will be the century of the life sciences, says Ed. As we look for the promise of bio in our lives, we also need to think about the security implications. Ed talks about recent research about genetically modifying animal viruses to spread to humans. After this result came out, scientists put a temporary 60 day moratorium on this kind of research. Ed shows us conspiracy websites that raise fears about government funded work on biological weapons. He argues that
As synthetic biology becomes more widespread, it’s possible to send information on DNA to synthetic bio companies and get a vial of smallpox or some other flu in the mail; a Guardian reporter actually did this in 2006. Since the report came out, the US has introduced regulations to carefully screen who makes these requests and what they ask for.
Yet it’s also important to keep biological research open to the public if we’re to gain the benefits of bio research in the 21st century, Ed tells us. Recent projects have made it possible to do CRISPR gene editing in the home. These are going to be genuine engines of innovation, just like the homebrew computer clubs that started in garages. At the same time, says Ed, governments are worried about genetically-engineered bio weapons and have cracked down on communities of innovation.
“How do you spur innovation while addressing innovation?” Ed asks. If you crack down on innovation, you could drive people underground and constrain important public benefits. Ed says that the FBI is trying to find ways to protect innovation. “Putting up walls is not the answer,” says Ed, who encourages the FBI and biohacking communities to join up. “Be guardians of science,” Ed encourages biohackers, inviting them to think about how best to protect public safety and mentor others to be responsible. Toward that end, the FBI became a sponsor of iGem, an international competition for bio hackers. Ed asks us to look at pictures of young people from China and other countries who participated in iGem. In the future, says Ed, these are people who will become leading citizens of science, and perhaps across the table in negotiations with the US. The FBI has also held meetups with DIY biohacking communities.
DIY bio is a good thing, says Ed. We need more of it, and we need to protect it, something that was emphasized in the 2009- 2017 US report on the study of bioethical issues. He argues that the FBI model can be an example for how other governments engage with creative communities. It pushes people’s comfort levels, and it can lead to public benefits says Ed: some biologists have now been applying to join the FBI: “What better act of defiance than that?”