FAS Roundup: Why the Pentagon Sees Increased Potential for Nuclear Conflict, Countering Climate Change With Renewable Energy Technologies, & More

By July 15, 2021

News You Can Use This Week: WHO Panel Issues Gene-Editing Standards Aimed at Averting DNA Dystopia

The World Health Organization published a new framework for preventing potentially dangerous applications of experimental DNA editing techniques. From The Wall Street Journal:

“The committee, made up of ethicists, policy makers and lawyers, said in the reports that the use of gene editing had evolved dramatically since they set out in December 2018 to develop a governing framework….”

Highlights from FAS Experts: Nuclear Conflict, Desert Silos, and Biofuels


Pentagon Sees “Increased Potential” for Nuclear Conflict

“The possibility that nuclear weapons could be used in regional or global conflicts is growing, said a newly disclosed Pentagon doctrinal publication on nuclear war fighting that was updated last year,” writes Project on Government Secrecy Director Steven Aftergood in a new Secrecy News blog post. The document replaces a 2019 edition titled Nuclear Operations that was briefly disclosed and then withdrawn from a DoD website.

U.S. Envoy Warns China ‘Looking At’ New Nuclear Technologies

“It’s not surprising that China would be developing and exploring technologies they see others working on,” Nuclear Information Project Director Hans Kristensen tells AP News

Countering Climate Change With Renewable Energy Technologies

“Renewable energies account for over half of all new power generation capacity brought online worldwide every year since 2011. To reduce reliance on petroleum-based fuels, particularly for heavy-duty vehicles and airplanes, biofuels could be part of the solution,” write Policy Analyst Lindsay Milliken, Tricia White, and Congressional Science Policy Initiative Director Michael A. Fisher in a new Science Policy blog post

Modalities of a Scientific Advisory Board for the Biological Weapons Convention

Last week, Senior Fellow Jenifer Mackby chaired the Second Workshop on the “Modalities of a Scientific Advisory Board for the Biological Weapons Convention,” for scientific experts, policy experts, and diplomats from more than 25 countries. In addition, she spoke about test-ban verification at the High Level Opening Session of the SnT2021 Conference on the 25th anniversary of the CTBTO. She also addressed a Webinar organized by Japan and the United Nations Office in Geneva on the “Review of Developments in Science and Technology related to the Biological Weapons Convention.”


Read Newly Released Policy Proposals from the Day One Project

Doubling the R&D Capacity of the Department of Education

The U.S. doesn’t spend enough money on education R&D. From Acting FAS President Dan Correa, Schmidt Futures Managing Director Kumar Garg, Day One Project intern Rujuta Pandit, and Learning Agency CEO Ulrich Boser: a blueprint to double the R&D budget for the Department of Education to create an adaptive, diverse, and globally competitive workforce for the future. 


Reforming Federal Rules on Corporate-Sponsored Research at Tax-Exempt University Facilities

Regional innovation experts Brian Darmody and Bill Bates outline two reforms that the Administration should implement to clarify and update rules governing use of facilities financed by tax-exempt bonds.

Using “Wargaming” to Evaluate Manufacturing Cyberthreats and Ensure Supply-Chain Cybersecurity

DOE National Labs manufacturing experts Dennis Miller, Rich Taylor, and Bill Barkman propose that the Administration should address cyberthreats to the manufacturing supply chain through a public-private partnership that uses “wargaming” analysis.


Deep Dive: Safeguarding Benchtop DNA Synthesis

Benchtop DNA synthesizers could become more ubiquitous, and it’s up to policymakers to chart the way forward.

The genetic blueprints for humans, plants, disease-causing bacteria, and all other living things are written in DNA, and machines capable of synthesizing DNA are becoming more accessible to potential users. Benchtop DNA synthesizers promise to increase the speed and efficiency of research in academic and industrial laboratories; however, it will be critical to incorporate safeguards into benchtop machines to prevent the printing of DNA sequences that would be used for harmful purposes. Researchers should be permitted to operate a benchtop DNA synthesizer to, for instance, make genetic material that is then used by a microbe to build a biofuel. 

But, aside from research conducted by pre-approved specialists, printing DNA that codes for deadly agents like the ricin or diphtheria protein toxins, for example, should be prohibited. As instruments capable of small-scale, rapid-turnaround DNA synthesis are already starting to enter the market, policymakers may be faced with a new era of democratized DNA synthesis, and should grapple with how to maximize the benefits of this technology while minimizing potential harm.

A National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report speculated that by 2027, individuals both with and without formal scientific training would be rapidly prototyping and developing biological designs and products. In both institutional and DIY contexts, there are protections that could be put in place to drastically reduce the likelihood of the misuse of benchtop DNA synthesizers. For instance, a January 2020 report from the World Economic Forum, crafted in collaboration with the Nuclear Threat Initiative, recommends that benchtop DNA synthesizers:

  • Be sold to and accessed by only legitimate, validated users;
  • Incorporate a mechanism that compares DNA sequences entered into the machine for synthesis to a database of pathogen and toxin DNA sequences before DNA strands are printed;
  • Allow synthesis of potentially hazardous DNA only for users preauthorized for such sequences, and prohibit the synthesis of pathogen or toxin DNA requested by unauthorized actors; and
  • Be used by individuals who have received training in biosafety and biosecurity.

Before efficient benchtop DNA synthesizers become even more ubiquitous, decision-makers have an opportunity to craft forward-thinking policies that both (i) protect the technology from misuse and (ii) promote its potential to advance human health, a cleaner environment, and many other public goods.

Adapted from “Safeguarding Benchtop DNA Synthesis” by Lindsay Milliken, Tricia White, and Michael Fisher. This CSPI Science and Technology Policy Snapshot expands upon a scientific exchange between Congressman Bill Foster (D, IL-11) and his new FAS-organized Science Council.