Thursday, September 13, 2018

DOD Funding : Part 2

In a previous post I described my position, held from about 2011 to 2016, against taking DOD funding for research into synthetic biology. Fast forward to 2018 and I find myself the PI of a DAPRA project and co-PI of an ONR project. What happened? Did I completely abandon my principles? No, I  refined them. In brief, I decided that it is much easier to assert one's values from within the system than from without. Yes, the ethical landscape is treacherous. But it is also where the conversation is, whether I am involved or not. In the process, I have come to a new understanding about the nature of technological evolution and my role in it, which has changed the way I make decisions about what to work on and who to talk to.

For some background: In 2010 and 2011, a few opportunities to fund synthetic biology, mainly from DARPA, had come up. My experience with DARPA funding in control systems and robotics as a graduate student and a postdoc led me to believe that the DOD's interest in synthetic biology may result in potentially dangerous military applications. I did not want to be a part of that. I stood by this position for years, refraining from submitting proposals and having to turn down offers from colleagues to collaborate. I became known among certain very small circles of synthetic biology researchers and students as somewhat outspoken on the issue. I enjoyed stimulating and interesting conversations with people, some aligned with my position and some quite opposed. Sadly, I also endured conversations in which my position was openly mocked. Those conversations for a time reinforced my own arguments against DOD funding for synthetic biology as I dug in my heels in an attempt to justify my position.

In any case, for about five years, DARPA programs in synthetic biology came and went, and I did not participate. Many new technologies were developed by researchers for whom I have the utmost respect. Students were funded, companies were spun-out, papers were published, and new applications developed. At the same time, the community discovered just how difficult it is to reprogram cells, refining its expectations and developing new questions. In reality, these DARPA programs were a success. And they were essentially the only major source of funding for synthetic biology outside of the NIH, which only recently has begun to be interested in the area, and only for very focused, health and longevity based applications.

What about the military applications that concerned me? Indeed, there are now national labs doing research in synthetic biology to which the broader research community (including me) is not privy.  Students who "grew up DARPA" are now working for the DOD, having taken their knowledge of synthetic biology with them. Going forward, DARPA is doubling down on synthetic biology, investigating a broad range of applications from genetic circuits to neuro-engineering. For example, a recent call for proposals supports technology for "temporarily and reversibly tuning gene expression to bolster the body’s defenses". On the face of it, this looks a lot like gene therapy. When funded by the NIH, gene therapy is focused on genetic diseases, for example. But funded by the DOD, the technology would be clearly intended to build hyper-resilient soldiers.

Did first generation of DOD funding for synthetic biology spawn these ideas? Partially, yes. But the ideas also grew out of NIH funded research, private sector research, and the creative minds of researchers, students, and futurists everywhere. But in another sense these applications feel inevitable. Funding aside, people talk about immortality, curing cancer, neural prosthetics, hyper-nutritious food, green chemical synthesis, terraforming Mars with synthetic microbes, and on and on. The Pandora's box was opened a long time ago, in the 1970's, with the development of recombinant DNA.

These days, most view technology as arising from a living, evolutionary, mimetic process. New technological memes, whether practicable or not, arise from creative effort, building on existing science and technology. A technological meme can be realized as a real technological artifact through the research and development process. Crucially, once the technological precursors to an unrealized meme are worked out, the meme may become quite virulent, potentially infesting the brains of engineers all over the world, especially if it co-evolves with a story about increased convenience, health, security, or power. Eventually, someone builds the thing. If not you, someone else.

Society, alas, has little control over technological evolution. Most of the population does not understand most of the technologies that are currently being developed. And as the recent explosion of social media problems demonstrate, next to nobody can predict the outcome of unleashing a new technology on the world. Governments can steer technological evolution to some extent, by either pouring funding into an area, like cancer research, or by actively legislating against an area, like human cloning. But life (by which I mean the evolving world of technological memes) will find a way.

As engineers, what control, if any, do we have over this process? Very little, it turns out. Unless you are a Jeff Bezos or an Elon Musk, we can really only choose where to spend our time. We can also choose what conversations to have and with whom. For me, I choose to spend my time on building a reliable framework for engineering genetic circuits and systems. I do this because I believe that both individual lives and entire ecosystems on this planet are quite fragile. I think we we ought to not only understand life, but intervene where necessary to preserve it and make it more robust. In my work, I have come to the conclusion that synthetic biology is a potentially powerful technology that may redefine what it means to be human, and that can be used for both useful and nefarious purposes. And I see it as completely inevitable, given the current intellectual, fiscal, and moral climate on our planet. Thus, I believe that since I am an expert in this area, I should spend whatever extra time I have available working to make sure the technology is developed responsibly. 

With these goals in mind, where are people (a) talking about futuristic applications of synthetic biology and (b) talking about responsible innovation? Among other venues, they're talking about it at DARPA. This is not to say that DARPA actively facilitates these conversations. Rather, the researchers they fund talk about it among themselves, with their program managers, and with their students. And I would like to think they talk about more when I am around, because I am always bringing it up. For example, at a recent meeting, we were brainstorming DOD applications of synthetic biology. An administrator (not a biologist) running the meeting suggested we consider offensive, defensive, and civilian applications. Somewhat flabbergasted, I reminded him that biological weapons are illegal. "Oh. I didn't realize that," he said! In other less extreme conversations, the issues were more subtle, involving the risks of dual-use technologies, issues of access, reminders of who are the stakeholders, and a fair amount of extrapolation of current technologies into the future.

So, I have come to believe that I am doing some good getting involved with DOD funded research. I maintain that in 2005-2010 I would not have been able to hold my own in conversations like the above, and was wise to stay away. I was a more junior researcher, less confident, and less informed. Now I feel like I have better tools with which to navigate the landscape. I feel confident enough in my own value system and ethical decision making framework to steer the development of new technologies toward uses that I believe will do the world good. Furthermore, I have found that many of my colleagues who also work with the DOD are doing the same thing, seeing themselves as responsible stewards of new technological memes that, for better or worse, infest the brains of humanity. I still draw the line, and can confidently say there are many technologies I will not under any circumstances work on. But the line is not drawn arbitrarily along a funding boundary. Rather, it is actively drawn by me, by trusting in my own judgement and my ability to mostly do the right thing.

To the students who feel betrayed by my seeming reversal, I invite you to chat with me about the subject. I have much to learn and I expect my position will continue to evolve. Please bear with me as I work through these issues and help me do the right thing from a compassionate and empathetic point of view. I will strive to do the same.