FA: Policing Synthetic Biology


Keeping Science in the Right Hands

Policing the New Biological Frontier.

By Ronald K. Noble, November/December 2013.

Ongoing research and discoveries in the life sciences — the latest and most promising involving synthetic biology — have led to extraordinary advances that will benefit society. But criminals and terrorists could manipulate such advances to disrupt public safety and national security. Since its founding in 1923, Interpol has learned that the most effective way to keep up with a constantly changing world is by engaging law enforcement and consulting experts in its 190 member countries. Effective solutions to new global security threats require the exchange of information and intelligence. As the methods criminals employ have developed, so, too, has Interpol’s capacity for deploying new strategies and offering assistance to stop them.

To reduce the risks associated with the potential abuse of scientific developments, researchers and the policymakers in national governments and international entities responsible for the oversight of such research have to understand how criminals could use these emerging technologies. Through innovations in the field of synthetic biology, scientists can now design and engineer new biological parts, devices, and systems and redesign existing ones for other purposes. But there is always the possibility that a person with malicious intentions could co-opt those same innovations, which carry no inherent danger, and use them to cause harm. In response, Interpol has developed strategies to assist law enforcement and experts in the health and scientific communities in confronting this threat and raise awareness of the stakes of criminal exploitation.

As the world’s largest international police organization, Interpol knows from its past experience in combating cybercrime, the trafficking of illicit goods, maritime piracy, and other criminal activities that a strategy in one country is not necessarily right for another. Some countries have more advanced law enforcement methods and agencies; others have little or no synthetic biological activities to even regulate. Still, law enforcement officials around the world should learn how to gauge future threats and how to mitigate them and prepare for the consequences of a biological attack in a neighboring country or their entire region. A global policing strategy for dealing with synthetic biology should spread awareness of the potential threats but must not impede further scientific discovery.


The misuse of synthetic biology and similar pioneering scientific technologies represents a multidimensional global threat that is becoming tomorrow’s reality. Therefore, it requires a coordinated international response. Interpol is playing a vital role in meeting this threat through its commitment to supporting law enforcement authorities around the world. But law enforcement is far from the only factor in this equation. The development of partnerships among all the relevant disciplines, especially between the scientific and research community and public health entities, is essential for a more efficient prevention-and-response strategy.

But science still must proceed unhindered. If biological research and the development of new scientific techniques are not allowed to progress, the very fabric of human existence could be affected. Diseases will continue to mutate, and without robust scientific research to produce better vaccines, human health could be endangered. Therefore, all nations should safeguard their sciences and ensure that future scientific developments generate significant advances for the good of all.

For complete article, see Ronald K. Noble, Keeping Science in the Right Hands, Foreign Affairs, November/December 2013.

(Emphasis added)