This project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) seeks empirically and theoretically to assess what is not taking place in relation to the analysis of the implications of science for security. It will study what is not taking place in different case studies related to the potential for life science knowledge and techniques to serve destructive purposes. Through doing so, the project will consider how such cases can inform other studies of emerging areas of concern and how they can inform empirical social research in general.


Absence in sci sec and polA number of questions that address themes of ethical blindness, taken for granted assumptions, and the social basis of assessments will be central to this project, including:

  • How, for who, between whom, and under what circumstances have some applications of science become rendered non-issues?
  • What are the everyday routines, practices, social structures that shape this process?
  • How have scientists, diplomats, security analysts, and others fostered attention to or distanced themselves from applications of their work?

The specific concern with the hostile application of the life sciences examined through the interdisciplinary programme of inquiry outlined in this application will serve as a springboard for addressing what is left outside professional and policy agendas. The ultimate impact anticipated from this project is to support efforts to prevent the malign use of life sciences and, thus, ensuring science and technology work to improve human security.

The substantive focus for this project derives from the observation that almost all major areas of science and technology have been employed for destructive purposes. Particularly since World War I, science and technology have been increasingly intertwined with the development of new means of warfare. In this context, claims about the revolution in understanding enabled by modern life sciences and medicine raise an unsettling question: might the knowledge being produced undermine — rather than further — human wellbeing? In short, might the life sciences become the death sciences?

While these questions have been posed in the past, far reaching questions are being asked today about the responsibilities of those associated with the life sciences; questions felt by some to be inadequately addressed to date. While at present it is reasonable to conclude the biological weapon capabilities of sub-state groups, individuals, and even certain states are not highly effective, this may well change due to the continuing development of civilian scientific techniques, the commercial application of research, and the movement of scientists internationally. The issue here is not simply about the proliferation of laboratory agents and equipment, but how the information and techniques generated through advanced life science research are enabling new capabilities. Concern with the latter requires scrutinizing matters such as access to information in the open scientific literature.

In the absence of positive and integrated action in the years ahead, a worry is that many more individuals and groups will have the capabilities required to cause disruption and harm. Also, this could undermine public trust in science. The positive and integrated programme of activities needed to prevent destructive uses of scientific knowledge will require active engagement from a broad range of communities. Attempts to address the destructive potential of life sciences to date have been preliminary, patchy, and problematic:

  • Preliminary because there is still arguably limited attention to the destructive potential of the life sciences among its practitioners as well as bioethicists, social researchers, and others.
  • Patchy because the degree and nature of attention varies by topic and geography;
  • Problematic because efforts undertaken to date (such as codes of conduct or the screening of manuscripts) have been based on linear conceptions of how knowledge enables technical capability, essentialist notions of dual use, limited reflection on how security policy informs practice, as well as hazy conceptualisations about the inter-relation of science and society.

The importance of sustained interdisciplinary professional attention to the destructive potential of life sciences knowledge and techniques, as well as the limited practitioner attention to it in recent decades, support the importance of explaining why certain matters get neglected.

Aims and Objectives

On Dual Uses of Science and EthicsThis proposal aims to address two questions:

  • How can those concerned with the implications of science and technology become more aware of the implications they are not addressing?
  • How can the recognition of such absences be translated into analysis that is practically relevant?

A starting point for the empirical focus of this proposal is the contention that it is essential for social analysis to address two questions: i) how issues are identified as matters of concerns in the first place; and ii) how do they become formulated as problems in need of redress? The innovative move proposed in this application is a shift, in a sense, backwards.

The principal objective is to assess what is not taking place in relation to the security governance of destructive uses of the life sciences through normative, theoretical and empirical examination, while also considering how the study of the lack of attention to certain issues in this area can inform normative and empirical analysis in general.

Balmer, Dando, Evans, Gould and Rappert will all produce and disseminate reports as part of the project. Prof Rappert will produce an extended paper on the methodological and epistemological considerations associated with researching non-issues. Prof. Dando will survey major trends in human cognitive enhancement in neuroscience; both with regard to scientific developments and well as social and ethical commentary. Dr. Evans will analyze differences in policy regard for the security dimensions of synthetic biology in the US and Europe. Dr. Gould in collaboration with Prof. Rappert will examine the historical framing of the South African Apartheid era biological and chemical weapons programme. Prof Balmer will undertake a historical case study of the construction of genetic engineering and biological weapons as a non-issue by the UK government in the late 1970s and its eventual re-positioning as a matter of concern in the 1980s. At a later date, Rappert plans to undertake another strand of empirical research designed to contrast how security dimensions are and are not regarded as matters of concern though an analysis of current international efforts to identify and assess so-called dual use ‘experiments of concern’.


EASST Conference: Non-concerns about Science and Technology and within STS

Dates: 17–19 September 2014
Location: Torun, Poland

Project members organized a track of presentations under the title ‘Non-concerns about science and technology and within STS’ at the September European Association for the Study of Science and Technology conference. Click for the full programme.

United Nations Side Event: Can We Learn from History? The Past and Future Implications of Scientific Developments for the Biological Weapons Convention

Dates: 6 August 2014 at 9h00–10h00
Venue: Room XXII, Palais de Nations, Geneva

In 2014 the UN Biological Weapons Convention Meeting of Experts and Meeting of States Parties will include consideration of 'advances in the understanding of pathogenicity, virulence, toxicology, immunology and related issues'. This side event at the Meeting of Experts furthered this discussion by asking what lessons can be learnt from past attempts to assess and address the implications of scientific and technical developments for the prohibition of biological weapons. We recounted experiences from a number of continents - including Africa, North America, and Europe - and across a range of fields of science to forward possibilities for what can be done today to ensure trends in the life sciences serve prophylactic, protective and other peaceful purposes. In particular, with the aid of history we asked how can those concerned with the implications of science and technology become more aware of the implications they are not addressing. It was chaired by Prof. Kathryn Nixdorff (University of Darmstadt).

PDF slides are available for:

Bioethics Society Launch

Location: Witwatersrand

Chandré Gould and Brian Rappert presented on their research about the former South African biological weapons programme at University of the Witwatersrand. The presentation served as the launch event for the Witwatersrand Students' Bioethics Society within the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics. It was held in conjunction with the South African Medical Association. For a newspaper article based on the talk, click here.

Symposium: Issues and Non-issues in Science and Medicine

Organiser: Brian Rappert (University of Exeter)
Dates: 27–28 September 2013
Venue: Exeter, University of Exeter

This symposium addressed two questions: How can those concerned with the ethical, political and social implications of science, technology and medicine become more mindful about the implications they are not addressing ? How can the recognition of such absences be translated into research agendas that are practically relevant?

Programme September 27
10:00–10:30 Introductions
10:30–11:30 On Holding What isn't There Brian Rappert (Exeter)
11:45–12:30 On Forming What isn't There Richard Moyes (Article 36)
13:15–14:45 Lost Histories? — Chair: Carol Stone (Dstl)
Brian Balmer (UCL) That some areas may have military significance does not necessarily mean that they would be attractive military options: What experts said and did not say about genetic engineering in the 1970s.
Ann Kelly (Exeter) Mosquito behaviour in the moonlight: Shuttering, fact-traps and entomological aesthetics
15:15–16:45 Writing Omission — Chair: Sabina Leonelli (Exeter), Discussant: Anton A van Niekerk (Stellenbosch)
Felicity Mellor (Imperial) Non-news values in science journalism
Chandre Gould (ISS) and Brian Rappert (Exeter) The dis-eases of secrecy
16:45–17:15 Closing Discussion
Programme September 28
9:00–11:15 The Tyranny of Light — Chair: Filippa Lentzos (KCL)
Brett Edwards (Bath) Dual-use governance in synthetic biology
Sam Evans (Berkeley) Getting security off the mind
Emma Frow (Edinburgh) Shaping matters of (non-) concern in synthetic biology
Michael Schillmeier (Exeter) What ELSA makes small in nanomedicine
11:30–13:00 Surprise and Foresight I — Chair: Gail Davies (Exeter)
Kathleen Vogel (Cornell) Intelligence forecasting: The Jefferson Experiment
John Walker (FCO) Missing the obvious — coping with scientific and technological change in arms control negotiations
13:30–14:15 Surprise and Foresight II — Chair: Chandre Gould (ISS)
James Revill (Sussex) Seeing the wood for the trees: The (mis)framing threats and risks in relation to CBW
14:15–15:00 From Recognition to Action — Chair: Chandre Gould (ISS)
Malcolm Dando (Bradford) 'In the Know': Why the well-informed are concerned about the possible misuse of advances in neuroscience in novel chemical and biological weapons
15:15–16:45 From Recognition to Action — Chair: Jonathan Forman (OPCW)
Gerald Walther (Bradford)
Catharine Rhodes (Manchester)
16:45 Closing Discussion