Managing the Security Risks of Emerging Technologies

Reviewed by Michael Moodie

Innovation, Dual Use, and Security: Managing the Risks of Emerging Biological and Chemical Technologies

Edited by Jonathan B. Tucker

Foreword by Richard Danzig

MIT Press, 2012, 352 pp.

For more than a decade, the world has witnessed an increasing confluence of rapidly advancing science and its embodiment in practical technologies, the extensive global diffusion of the knowledge and capabilities associated with those developments, and a seemingly unending shift in the international security environment. The scope and intensity of these interactions have generated concern about security risks stemming from the possible misuse of emerging science and technology. The issue is especially acute with respect to the life sciences and related technologies.

One reason is the issue of dual use—that is, that the materials, hardware, and knowledge that could foster enormous strides in medicine, agriculture, energy, and other areas valuable for humankind—also can be exploited for the illicit production of biological and chemical weapons. A dilemma lies at the core of the dual-use challenge, one vividly described by Richard Danzig, a former senior U.S. policymaker and longtime analyst of the challenge: “Put metaphorically, the nuclear weapons genie stands alone, whereas the biological and chemical weapons genies are [each] Siamese twins with one set of vital organs. We cannot kill the evil twin because we have to let the good twin into the world.”

Danzig offers this pithy formulation in his foreword to a new collection of essays, Innovation, Dual Use, and Security: Managing the Risks of Emerging Biological and Chemical Technologies, edited by the late Jonathan B. Tucker, a member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors and a personal friend and frequent colleague for many years. This book represents Tucker’s final contribution to a demanding national security field in which he was recognized as an unquestioned leader. The book is a fitting tribute because it has all the hallmarks that made his work so important to so many people: keen scholarship, an insistence on clear prose that ensures access for the layman to often highly technical and complex science and technology, and an unwavering commitment to helping policymakers address a national security challenge of potentially vast dimensions.

Tucker assembled a stellar roster of contributors with wide and deep expertise on the full range of issues related to the dual-use problem. He and his team directed their efforts toward two objectives. Their “analytical” goal was to examine the characteristics of emerging dual-use technologies in biology and chemistry; the “practical” aim was to help policymakers devise effective “governance strategies” for managing risks posed by these innovative technologies while preserving their very real benefits.

The resulting volume consists of three parts. The first is a description of the methodology for formulating a “decision framework” to identify appropriate governance strategies for managing risks generated by key technological innovations related to the life sciences. The second part consists of a series of 16 case studies addressing specific technologies to which the authors applied the decision framework. A final discussion considers the findings and conclusions and their implications.

The case studies, which constitute about two-thirds of the book, cover critical developments across categories of life sciences-related technology that have been of concern for some time.[1] The authors use a common format to provide an overview of a given technology, address its history and utility, and consider its potential for misuse. They then examine that technology through the prism of the component factors of the decision framework to assess the risks of its misuse and its amenability to governance measures.

These case-study chapters are consistently strong, and the information and analysis they present are essential for understanding the contours of the problem. These chapters do a particularly good job avoiding highly technical jargon or discussion that would otherwise make them impenetrable to a general reader. In some spots, a greater degree of technical awareness would benefit the reader, but these passages are the exception. The combination of accessibility with the consistent application of a common analytical framework leads the team to succeed admirably in achieving the analytical goal they set for themselves.

For readers approaching the dual-use challenge from a policy perspective, however, the more germane part of the book may be its discussion of the development and application of the decision framework as a way of offering “practical” tools for shaping strategies to manage risks related to technological innovations. The results underline the obstacles to addressing the dual-use challenge successfully. They provoke the reader to ask a number of difficult questions about some of the team’s assumptions, analytical choices, and judgments with respect to the utility of the decision framework that lies at the heart of its endeavor.

Space does not permit a discussion that does full justice to the richness of the issues highlighted by this volume’s proposed approach to managing the dual-use problem or all the questions that still must be answered to achieve success. A few of the more interesting issues, however, are discussed below.

Risk Assessment

The starting point of the analysis, which Tucker offers in the first chapter, is spot-on—that the prerequisite for effective governance of innovative technologies is “the ability to assess the safety and security risks of a technology.” Tucker makes the important observation that traditional risk assessments in the chemical and biological arena have been “artifact-centric,” focusing on materials and equipment. He notes, however, that such an approach is no longer adequate for at least two reasons. “First, whereas the traditional definition of technology emphasizes hardware, equipment and tools, technology also encompasses people, processes, and know-how. Second, dual-use biological and chemical technologies are increasingly diffuse, globalized, and multidisciplinary and are often based on intangible information rather than on specialized materials and equipment.”

Recognizing the need to shift away from artifact-centric assessments to more complex analyses requiring attention to people, processes, know-how, intangible information, and other factors is a critical step for addressing the risks posed by emerging technologies. It changes the definition of the problem from a material- and equipment-based threat that can be eliminated to a knowledge-based risk that must be managed. If what people know is more important than what people have, then the crucial factor becomes the choice that people will make about how they use the knowledge they have.

This changes fundamentally the kinds of measures to which policymakers must give attention. Refocusing in this way is not easy because thinking about policy measures in the proliferation arena traditionally has been shaped by the nuclear challenge, and safeguarding and controlling nuclear materials remains the best way to stop development of nuclear weapons. Policymakers do not necessarily have extensive experience in addressing knowledge-based risks on a systematic and sustained basis. The tools for doing so are not plentiful, and those that exist are not especially robust. Innovation in the policy arena must be no less dynamic than that in science and technology. One might have wished that Tucker had pushed his analysis to begin the exploration of the kinds of novel measures such a task requires.

In Tucker’s discussion of risk assessment, he argues that doing biological and chemical risk assessment is extremely challenging because it depends as much on the intent and capabilities of the user as the characteristics of the technology itself.…Ideally, assessing the risk of deliberate misuse of an emerging technology should take into account the potential actors and their motivations, along with targets and scale of an attack. In practice however, such prospective assessments are extremely difficult to make in a rigorous manner.... An important issue in assessing dual use risk is the role of intent, which varies according to the potential user.

Later he argues that “making ‘intent to misuse’ a standard element of the decision framework would require speculation about human motives that is unsupported by the available evidence, particularly with respect to non-state actors.”

From these perspectives, Tucker draws two conclusions. One is that it “will always be difficult to predict whether or not a specific technology will be misused for harmful purposes,” particularly in the early stages of a technology’s development when uncertainty about the new technology is highest. The second is that, for analytical purposes, “the decision framework simply presumes the existence of malign intent on the part of certain potential actors.”

These conclusions are problematic. The first seems to run counter to the very purpose of the book, which is at least in part to assess the extent to which cutting-edge innovations in the life sciences create possible risks. To be sure, biological and chemical risk assessments are very difficult, but the high stakes involved demand that they be done and that they continue to improve. Moreover, it partly is uncertainty that makes these assessments so difficult, and Tucker is right that uncertainty about technology’s ultimate impact is highest in the early stages of that technology’s development. Yet, it is precisely in these early stages that risk assessments and the application of governance measures could have their greatest impact. Further progress in the technology’s evolution then perhaps can be channeled most readily in ways to diminish potential risks.

Another problem is that Tucker’s inclusion in his decision framework of the presumption of malign intent oversimplifies the analytical challenge. Most experts recognize that precisely evaluating the intent of a state or nonstate actor is a very difficult task, even for the intelligence community. Nevertheless, it should be part of the risk assessment process. Tucker himself argues that “intent is crucial to whether or not a particular technology will be misused.” More importantly, he notes that the book’s V-agent case study, authored by British analysts Caitriona McLeish and Brian Balmer, provides evidence that “runs counter to the traditional determinist view of dual use as an inherent characteristic of a technology, resulting inevitably in its application for hostile purposes.” He explains that “the transfer of Amiton [an insecticide] from the civil to the military sector required the active intervention of a socioscientific network made up of government and private sector actors, which served to translate a compound designed for peaceful purposes into a weapon.”

According to this very important argument, misuse is not an inevitability; rather, the “mediating influence of social processes is required for a technology to be misapplied for hostile purposes.” If this is true, then why incorporate an automatic assumption of malign intent into the analytical framework? Much of Tucker’s previous work highlighted the importance of human agency in moving proliferation developments in particular directions.[2] One wonders why a similar perspective was not as prominent in this analysis.

The Decision Framework

The central element of the book is the proposed decision framework, described as a “practical tool for decision-makers seeking to decide which emerging dual use technologies warrant the development of governance measures on a priority basis and what types and combinations of governance measures would be most effective.” The framework is conceived as a product of three interconnected processes: technology monitoring, technology assessment in terms of both risk of misuse and governance feasibility, and selection of governance measures.

In defining this approach, the analysis makes a useful and important distinction between “governing,” which refers to the “top-down efforts by the state to regulate the behavior of people and institutions,” and “governance,” a range of “complex sociopolitical administrative interactions” involving a variety of actors beyond the state, including scientists and engineers, policymakers and regulators, industry, and civil society groups. Governance is seen as incorporating not only a state’s laws and regulations but also “soft law,” which is not legally binding but has more of a voluntary character, such as professional guidelines or codes of conduct, as well as informal measures.

The book identifies a set of parameters that structures the assessments of the risks associated with a dual-use technology and of the technology’s amenability to governance measures. For evaluating the risk of misuse, those parameters include accessibility of the technology, ease of misuse, magnitude of potential harm from misuse, and imminence of potential misuse. For each of the specific technologies, these parameters were evaluated according to a three-level scale (high, medium, low). To assess governability, the parameters, using the same three-level scale, were maturity of the technology, number of scientific disciplines it brings together, whether it was embodied more in hardware or intangible information, its rate of advance, and the degree of its international diffusion.

Application of this framework to the 14 specific technology case studies yielded a matrix that highlighted several important results. First, only one technology—chemical microprocessing devices,[3] assessed in a chapter by Amy Smithson of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies—ranked high in both risk of misuse and amenability to governance. This leads Tucker and co-author Kirk Bansak in the book’s final chapter to recommend making the selection of governance measures to deal with this technology the top priority for policymakers. Five other technologies—synthesis of viral genomes (in the chapter authored by Filippa Lentzos of the London School of Economics and Political Science and Pamela Silver of Harvard Medical School), combinatorial chemistry (Tucker), development of psychoactive drugs (Malcolm Dando of the University of Bradford), protein engineering (Catherine Jefferson of the Harvard Sussex Program on Chemical and Biological Weapons), and synthesis of peptide bioregulators (Ralf Trapp, an independent consultant)—were deemed to have a combination of high and medium scores in those two categories, making them next on the list of priorities.

Even this very cursory description of the decision framework and its application conveys the rigor and discipline that characterizes this analysis. The authors make it difficult for a reader to take issue with their key findings regarding the specific technologies that they assessed.

It is easier to ask questions about their analytical process and some aspects of the framework’s application. First, given the evaluation parameters, determinations had to be subjective. This is not meant as a criticism; the variety and complexity of factors involved in this assessment do not lend themselves to objective standards. Moreover, the fact that the specific technologies were evaluated at least in part through the interactions of the team rather than by a single individual strengthens confidence in the final judgments. Yet, it still leads one to ask whether a different group with an equal level of expertise would have reached the same conclusions in all cases.

This question is more than an academic quibble. One of Tucker and Bansak’s key recommendations is the creation of a new entity, perhaps within the Executive Office of the President but bolstered by a high degree of technical expertise, whose sole mission is to oversee the implementation of the decision framework, which entails the critical task of setting policy priorities. Because different groups of experts could make different subjective judgments of risks and governance opportunities, the results could be a distinctly different set of policy priorities, with all that implies for resource allocations and impacts on the many stakeholders involved.

Second, although the book effectively elaborates the decision framework’s assessment function, it is less successful considering the selection of “tailored” packages of governance measures. The analysis continually stresses the need for such packages of measures drawn from hard law, soft law, and informal efforts, but it provides virtually no discussion of or guidance for identifying the measures that might be included or determining how best to fit the elements together. In the final chapter, Tucker and Bansak make some observations that could serve as guidelines, such as, “[i]n general, the greater the governability of a technology, the more likely it is that formal regulations will be cost effective.” These statements are certainly correct, but without elaboration they are not likely to get a policymaker very far.

The book also misses an important discussion by not giving more attention to the challenges many countries will confront in assembling packages of governance measures that are genuinely effective. On several occasions, the analysis makes passing reference to the global diffusion of the technologies it addresses. Yet, those comments do little to convey the speed at which the process of technology diffusion is moving, the geographic breadth it has already achieved, or the resulting reality that managing the potential risks of misuse of these emerging technologies is a global responsibility.

One can argue that the risks of misuse are unlikely to manifest themselves in the United States or other countries with reasonably developed governance strategies. Rather, those actors who have no scruples about misusing technological innovations for malign purposes are to be expected to operate primarily in environments without governance strategies because such environments provide greater freedom of action. Those are not usually the environments where the scientific and technological innovations themselves occur, but today’s pattern of scientific and technological diffusion around the world means that critical technology and knowledge will appear in unusual and unexpected places. This is one area in which this or a similar team of experts could build on the work presented in this book. A strategy for working with others around the globe is urgent.

These comments may provoke the question of whether the volume achieves its practical goal of providing a tool for managing the risks associated with biological and chemical technological innovations. The book’s proffered decision framework may not be the final or complete answer to managing the dual-use conundrum. Yet, this does not diminish the book’s ultimate utility because it represents an essential first step on the journey toward such answers. By forcing readers to ask difficult questions, the approach presented here should launch a widespread and important discussion that, in the end, could result in a variety of more-effective mechanisms for managing the risks associated with emerging technological innovations.


Michael Moodie is assistant director for foreign affairs, defense, and trade at the Congressional Research Service (CRS). He is a former assistant director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and president of a policy research center, in which capacities he focused on chemical and biological weapons issues. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent positions or policies of the Library of Congress or CRS.


1. These include technologies for the acquisition of novel biological or molecular diversity, such as combinatorial chemistry and DNA shifting; for directed design, such as protein engineering and synthetic biology; for the manipulation of biological systems, such as through psychoactive drugs and modulation of the immune system; and for production, packaging, and delivery, such as chemical microprocessing devices and aerosol vaccines. The book also includes historical studies of the United Kingdom’s development of V-series chemical nerve agents and the use of LSD by the U.S. Army and the CIA.

2. For example, see Jonathan B. Tucker, War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare From World War I to Al-Qaeda (New York: Pantheon Books, 2006).

3. Chemical microprocessing devices are miniaturized technologies for the production of chemicals that allow the precise regulation of chemical reactions and reduce the formation of unwanted by-products, producing safer, faster, more selective, more energy-efficient, and more cost-effective results compared to standard chemical reactors.