The Ethics and Governance of Dual-Use Synthetic Biology within the United States and the United Kingdom (2003 - 2012)

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


This thesis examines the emergence and governance of dual-use concerns associated with biotechnological innovation. Previous work has engaged with various facets of the dual-use issue from a wide range of theoretical perspectives. This includes, for example, the study of the dual-use issue as an ethical dilemma facing the scientific community (Miller and Selgelid 2007) and as a challenge to international arms control and non-proliferation regimes directed at biological and chemical weapons (Kelle, Nixdorff, and Dando 2006). Work in this area has also included educational (Rappert 2009) and other types of ‘active research’ (Rabinow and Bennett 2012) approaches, which have focused primarily on the scientific community. A key gap in this literature is the absence of comprehensive explanatory frameworks which address how and why governance initiatives are developing in national contexts, which could lead to clearer understandings of the scope and prospect of dual-use governance. To this end, this thesis takes a comparative case study approach to characterise the emergence of dual-use governance regimes directed at the nascent techno-scientific field of synthetic biology. The work focuses on developments in the emergence of the field in two national cases studies; the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Empirically, the work draws upon several types of source material, including elite interviews as well as primary and secondary document analysis. In theoretical terms, academic debates about constructivist approaches to the study of securitization processes are utilized in order to help refine the analytical framework developed within this study. This thesis represents the first substantive comparison of UK and US approaches to the governance of dual-use aspects of cutting-edge life science research and biotechnology. It identifies and characterises four key domains of dual-use governance at national level. Further to this, the work traces the various impacts of these domains on the emergence and scope of dual-use governance in the case of synthetic biology in a US and UK context. In particular, this work reveals the role that existing laboratory safety and security regimes play in defining the scope of dual-use problems. It also identifies a number of attempts within the New and Emerging Science and Technology domain to move beyond these restrictive framings. Analysis reveals a series of challenges facing such initiatives which can be explained with reference to the institutions and norms within the key domains of governance as well as the relationship between these domains. This work also reveals the extent to which dichotomous presentations of bottom-up verse top-down governance options represent a crude understanding of the politics of dual-use issues. In particular, analysis reveals how key aspects of the synthetic biology community, scientific institutions and industry have played a fundamental role in shaping the scope and nature of government responses to dual-use concerns in relation to certain dual-use issues associated with the field. Finally, this thesis also demonstrates, through the utilisation of two policy process heuristics, that securitization theory could benefit greatly from further engagement with policy theory, particularly in the context of analytically eclectic research in the context of the study of non-traditional security issues.
Date of Award17 Sept 2014
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SponsorsThe Wellcome Trust
SupervisorAlexander Kelle (Supervisor) & Adrian Hyde-Price (Supervisor)

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