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About the Authors

Tessa Alexanian is a Safety and Security Program Officer with the iGEM Foundation. She has worked as an automation engineer, instigated the Catalyst collaborative biosecurity summit, and was the 2020 Foresight Fellow in Responsible Biotechnology. *First co-author. 

Mayra Ameneiros is a biochemist, with a M.S. in transfusion medicine and immunohematology; a postgraduate degree in international security, disarmament, and non-proliferation of WMD; and a biorisk management and biosecurity professional certifications from IFBA. Currently, she is the Director of Strategic Engagement & Development at Biopreparedness International, a Senior Advisor at PandemicTech, and a Consulting Advisory Board member at Merrick & Company’s Life Sciences. *First co-author. 

Christopher Isaac is a program officer with the Global Biological Policy and Programs team at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. He is an alumnus of the Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Fellowship at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and a member of the iGEM Safety and Security Committee.

Gabrielle Essix is a program officer on the Global Biological Policy and Programs team at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, where she works on projects to strengthen global health security and biosecurity including NTI’s Global Health Security Index, the Global Biosecurity Dialogue, and the Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition. She holds an M.S. in Biohazardous Threat Agents and Emerging Infectious Diseases from Georgetown University.

Stephanie Norlock serves as a program officer for the International Federation of Biosafety Associations. Her portfolio is largely dedicated to the human element of global biosecurity, where she has developed and presently facilitates programming such as the IFBA Global Mentorship Program and the IFBA Equity-Focused Coordinating Committee.

Ronit Langer is an analyst at Talus Analytics and a global coordinator at After iGEM. She was a Scoville Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and holds a degree in computer science from MIT.

Samantha Dittrich is a public health professional with international experience in global health security, epidemiology, disease surveillance, and laboratory systems strengthening. She currently serves as the lead for Merrick & Company’s Global Health Security Program and the Chair of the Global Health Security Agenda Consortium (GHSAC). She earned a Master of Public Health in Prevention Science from Emory University, a B.S. in Nursing, and a B.A. in Spanish from the University of Virginia.

Leonard Peruski is the lead for international laboratory operations in the Division of Global Health Protection of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). He also serves as the co-lead at CDC to the Global Health Security Agenda’s action packages for National Laboratory Systems, Biosafety, and Biosecurity. He received his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan School of Medicine in microbiology, followed by postdoctoral training at the National Center for Immunology and Respiratory Medicine in Denver, Colorado.

Article

The Next Wave of Biosecurity Experts: Young Scientists Need a Better Path into Global Diplomacy

In 2022, there is no longer a need to convince young people that their lives could be severely disrupted by a large-scale biological event. Now is the time to create new paths for young scientists to enter into biosecurity science diplomacy.

Creating opportunities for life scientists and other domain experts to participate in diplomacy is crucial, as biotechnology and synthetic biology are advancing so rapidly1 that their risks may not be apparent to all stakeholders. Youth perspectives are particularly needed to create innovative solutions and generate long-term engagement.

Over the past decade, global biosecurity organizations have created programs that enable young scientists to explore science diplomacy and expand their professional networks in biosecurity. However, we see three major gaps: a lack of roadmaps for biosecurity diplomacy careers, few opportunities for international community-building, and a dearth of bridges into local policy communities. We identify a set of guiding principles for future programs that aim to grow the next generation of global biosecurity diplomats.

The role of global diplomacy in biosecurity

Although “biosecurity” has varied definitions,2 we use it here to encompass efforts in the fields of biotechnology, synthetic biology, health security, disarmament, and biodefense to create policies that balance the benefits that life sciences may provide against the associated risks of their misuse. Without progress in biosecurity, we may blunder into global catastrophic risks, e.g., by failing to prevent an even deadlier pandemic, or we may stifle important benefits, e.g., by failing to find the regulatory consensus needed to deploy biotechnologies to address climate change.

Biosecurity requires global diplomacy because the risks associated with life sciences, such as a  pandemic or an invasive gene drive, are inherently transnational; self-replicating threats have no respect for borders and exist on a scale beyond what any single nation can address. The need for international collaboration is reflected in the Global Health Security Index, which uses “compliance with international norms” as a key measure of national pandemic preparedness.3 We see the role of global diplomacy in biosecurity to foster the negotiation of these international norms and other shared priorities.

These negotiations will require the expertise of life scientists, public health professionals, and others with the ability to assess biological threats, identify health system vulnerabilities, and report on advancements in emerging technologies. They also require an understanding of the diverse local contexts in which policies will be enacted; a global pandemic preparedness plan that assumes national coordination of public health responses will falter in places with greater devolution of authority.

We believe we need a new generation of global biosecurity experts both trained in countering biological threats and integrated into diplomatic networks and processes.

The value of youth perspectives

Before elaborating on the value of youth perspectives, it is worth recognizing the diversity and varying definitions of “youth.” For example, even within the United Nations (UN) system, “youth” is defined according to three different age ranges: under 24, under 30, and under 40 years of age. A more detailed, international list of definitions of youth can be found in Table 1 in the Annex. Regardless of the definition used, the world’s youth are concentrated in low and middle-income countries (LMICs), and there are particular benefits to including the perspectives of young people in global biosecurity diplomacy:

Fresh paradigms: young people have different foundational assumptions about biotechnology. When today’s youth studied life sciences, the cost of gene synthesis had been falling exponentially for the last two decades, gene editing was already a basic element of the curriculum, and synthetic biology kits and lectures were readily available online. Their fresh paradigms are not only derived from their scientific training but from other aspects of their lived experience, including increased attention to the inclusion of underrepresented groups and early professional experience with online collaboration, such that remote inclusion feels like a normal part of the engagement. Accordingly, young professionals can re-examine old issues with fresh eyes and offer innovative solutions.

An investment in the future: given their substantial personal stake in the future, youth are recognized as a UN Major Group of stakeholders and are highlighted in the UN Secretary-General’s agenda for disarmament.4 Urgent challenges relevant to global biosecurity, such as the climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the emerging bioeconomy, produce generation-specific impacts that motivate youth to be involved. Youth involvement is key to building new leadership. The training and engagement of young scientists must be supported now so that the field can access their biosecurity expertise in the coming decades.

Recent on-the-ground experience: youth make up the majority of the graduate students and laboratory technicians that are on the ground level of advancing biotechnology. Their work is directly connected to core biosecurity issues like ensuring a safe and secure laboratory environment and thoughtfully addressing possible dual-use concerns. Additionally, many frontline healthcare workers, with first-hand experience with their local public health infrastructure, are youth. Given their experience with emerging technologies and practical public health, youth perspectives are needed to understand how policy can collide with the realities in the field.

Young scientists around the world are excited to participate in global biosecurity diplomacy. Although their education does not usually lend them direct experience in science diplomacy,5 new opportunities are emerging for them to participate and develop expertise.

The emerging landscape of opportunities

In the past decade, a number of global biosecurity organizations have created new opportunities for young scientists to gain exposure to science diplomacy and to build networks with the existing professional community (Table 2). Additionally, degree programs focused on biosecurity have been developed, though they remain concentrated in upper-income countries (Table 3). These networks and programs show a field that is beginning to recognize the importance of building youth capacity and creating career entry points for emerging professionals.

One of the longest-running youth engagement programs is the Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative (ELBI) Fellowship, which was established in 2012 to create a pathway for young professionals to enter the field of biosecurity. After the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) was launched in 2014, it created a network for emerging professionals that included various organizations engaged in global health security, now known as The Next Generation Global Health Security Network (NextGen). In 2019, the UN Secretary-General’s Agenda for Disarmament included a call for “more education and training opportunities … in order to create a platform for the sustainable entry of young people from all parts of the world into the field of disarmament,”6 leading to a number of new programs.

These opportunities allow participants to be exposed to biosecurity and/or diplomatic discussions while continuing their existing work or studies; some go a step further by allowing young people to act as mentors or coordinators within programs, giving them valuable leadership experience. However, they do not provide professional biosecurity training or credentials.

There is an emerging consensus that new standards for educational and professional training in biosecurity are needed.7 This is reflected in recent tools such as the Tianjin Biosecurity Guidelines for Codes of Conduct for Scientists8 and the Global Laboratory Leadership Programme competency framework.9 Table 3 gives some examples of academic educational programs, ranging from certifications to doctoral programs, that focus on biosecurity. The existence of these programs is encouraging, but many are not suited to train a new generation of science diplomats; some emphasize policy and governance, but others are focused more purely on scientific aspects of health and agricultural biosecurity. The need for specialist higher education programs to specifically target the science-policy interface has been discussed elsewhere.10

Unmet needs in the landscape of opportunities

These new opportunities have succeeded in growing the biosecurity community and involving more youth perspectives in science diplomacy. However, critical gaps remain, including three major needs:

Road maps for biosecurity diplomacy careers: there is no clear career road map for a young scientist wishing to enter the biosecurity diplomacy field. There are few educational programs focused on biosecurity, and most are costly graduate programs located in the United States. Young professionals who already work in biosafety and biosecurity can take professional certification exams and may receive mentorship through some of the programs identified in Table 2, but volunteer mentors cannot meet the needs of every interested young scientist. Training in diplomacy for biosecurity has been limited to part-time networking and engagement.

Ongoing connection for international community-building: the current landscape lacks opportunities to build a truly international youth community, which is especially necessary since the world’s youth are concentrated in low and middle-income countries (LMICs). The Youth4Biosecurity Workshops are only for scientists located in the Global South. The ELBI fellowship provides an example of how an initiative can be adapted for more international community-building. For its first decade, the fellowship was closed to all but citizens of the U.S., UK, and Canada, but as of 2022 they have started to accept applications from any country that does not have a standing U.S. government embargo or sanction. The other opportunities do not focus on the sort of ongoing and self-reinforcing group interactions that are needed to foster an international youth community in biosecurity diplomacy, but instead involve more general one-on-one mentorship, standalone events, or national and regional connections. Building an international community does not necessarily demand new programs, but could be achieved through greater collaboration and connection across this landscape of opportunities.

Bridging into local policy communities: national and regional connections should be supported and integrated into global policymaking and program design. Many biosecurity policies are practically implemented on a local level, and there is a need for more robust connection and follow-up so that fellows, mentees, and delegates can go on to influence national or regional policymaking. Connections with local technical experts and decision-makers, such as members of national and regional biosafety and biosecurity associations and local legislators, will also support career development for young professionals.

Guiding principles for cultivating growth in global biosecurity science diplomats

To cultivate growth for young life scientists and policymakers, these gaps in the landscape of biosecurity opportunities must be addressed for students or early-career professionals.

For the younger groups, this should begin with a fundamental understanding of the importance of biosecurity across the domains of science, global health security, and policy. For the older groups, this could entail assisting with the transition into leadership roles.

A program or a network of programs that would provide sufficient support for youth to engage with biosecurity science diplomacy would need to address the three gaps previously identified:

Roadmaps for biosecurity diplomacy careers: in addition to providing exposure and networking, programs should be educational and professional. They should allow participants to fill gaps in their biosecurity and/or diplomacy expertise, regardless of the field they began their studies in, and provide paths to engage with global diplomacy as a full-time career. One concrete approach would be to offer targeted funding for mentors to grow the network of mentorship programs while addressing geographic disparities.

Ongoing connection for international community-building: programs should strive to create self-reinforcing feedback loops that continue to create new biosecurity and biosafety experts. These experts should bring diverse international perspectives, and programs should embed them in a multi-tiered network that supports local action, promotes regional engagement, and creates a global community.

Bridging into local policy communities: programs should honor existing networks at the local level, connecting with their expertise and collaboration to bring about new policies. National and regional associations should be involved,11 and sustainable support from senior leadership, including governments, should be sought.

We have seen positive signs along some of these metrics. There seems to be growing interest in building a sustained international community for youth engagement in biosecurity diplomacy. Many of the extra-vocational programs listed in Table 2 were launched recently, and the host organizations have jointly advocated for youth inclusion in diplomacy through events presented to the United Nations Biological Weapons Convention (BWC),12 including the presentation at the 2020 Meeting of States Parties13 of a “Youth Declaration for Biosecurity”14 drafted by alumni of the 2021 UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) Biosecurity & Diplomacy Workshop for Young Scientists from the Global South. This declaration proposed several actions which would address these gaps, including establishing a Scientific Advisory Group (SAG) to the BWC that includes youth perspectives and providing biosecurity training scholarships to students in LMICs.

Funding challenges remain a key barrier to meaningful participation of young scientists from the Global South in biosecurity diplomacy. This may be partly addressed by the increased use of hybrid or virtual program models, removing the need to self-fund international travel in order to network with other professionals. As long as hybrid models are inclusive in design and do not disadvantage virtual participants, they may allow a much wider group of youth to access diplomacy fora and self-organize to further their own interests.

Further, meaningful participation of these underrepresented groups must be explicitly supported by senior leadership in biosecurity diplomacy spheres, including support from national governments support for youth to further their perspectives. This may be implemented through the appointment of dedicated youth representatives at the national level during diplomatic meetings, financially supporting existing programs offered by academia and civil society (Table 3), and endorsing other youth-centered or youth-led initiatives or collectives in global biosecurity. Biodiversity diplomacy may provide a useful model; the UN Convention on Biological Diversity hosts a Global Youth Biodiversity Network which has run capacity-building workshops and sent youth representatives to meetings of the convention.15

Lastly, we recommend continued assessment of the impacts of programs such as professional certification,16 mentorship,17 and career-building infrastructure.18 We do not yet know the best path for youth into biosecurity diplomacy; as new programs emerge, we must monitor their effectiveness and create an evidence base for long-term investment.

Biosecurity requires global diplomacy that draws on diverse voices of talented experts. It has been said the best time to plant a tree was 50 years ago; the best time to plant the seeds for skilled science diplomats for new growth in biosecurity is now.

 

Endnotes

  1. Fankang Meng and Tom Ellis, “The Second Decade of Synthetic Biology: 2010–2020,” Nature Communications 11, no. 5174 (2020), https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-19092-2.
  2. A few definitions: per the WHO’s laboratory biosafety manual, laboratory biosecurity is “the protection, control and accountability for valuable biological materials (VBM) within laboratories, in order to prevent their unauthorized access, loss, theft, misuse, diversion or intentional release.” Per the UN FAO, it is “a strategic and integrated approach that encompasses the policy and regulatory frameworks for analyzing and managing relevant risks to human, animal, plant life and health, and associated risks to the environment.”
  3. Nuclear Threat Initiative and Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, “Global Health Security Index: Advancing Collective Action and Accountability Amid Global Crisis (2021),” December 2021, www.ghsindex.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/2021_GHSindexFullReport_Final.pdf.
  4. United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA), “Securing Our Common Future: An Agenda for Disarmament,” May 2018, www.un.org/disarmament/sg-agenda/en.
  5. Jean-Christophe Mauduit and Marga Gual Soler, “Building a Science Diplomacy Curriculum,” Frontiers in Education 5, no. 138 (2020), www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/feduc.2020.00138/full.
  6. UNODA, “Securing Our Common Future: An Agenda for Disarmament.”
  7. Rebecca L. Moritz et al., “Promoting Biosecurity by Professionalizing Biosecurity,” Science 367, no. 6480 (2020), https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aba0376.
  8. Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Tianjin University Center for Biosafety Research and Strategy, and Interacademies Partnership, “The Tianjin Biosecurity Guidelines for Codes of Conduct for Scientists,” July 2021, www.interacademies.org/publication/tianjin-biosecurity-guidelines-codes-conduct-scientists.
  9. World Health Organization, “Laboratory Leadership Competency Framework,” March 11, 2019, www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789241515108.
  10. Mauduit and Soler, “Building a Science Diplomacy Curriculum”; Elizabeth E. Lyons, Karen Lips, and Esther Obonyo, “Catalyzing U.S. Higher Education to Build a Better Post-Pandemic Future through Science Diplomacy,” Science & Diplomacy, January 22, 2021, www.sciencediplomacy.org/article/2021/catalyzing-us-higher-education-build-better-post-pandemic-future-through-science.
  11. International Federation of Biosafety Associations (IFBA), “Member Associations,” https://internationalbiosafety.org/member-associations.
  12. United Nations, “Side Event during Biological Weapons Convention Meeting of Experts Spotlights Youth Contributions to Responsible Innovation,” October 5, 2021, www.un.org/disarmament/update/side-event-during-biological-weapons-convention-meetings%E2%80%AFof-experts-spotlights-youth-contributions-to-responsible-innovation.
  13. International Federation of Biosafety Associations, “Mobilizing Youth to Strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention: Virtual Side Event BWC 2020 Meeting of States Parties,” November 22, 2021, https://internationalbiosafety.org/mobilizing-youth-to-strengthen-the-biological-weapons-convention-virtual-side-event-bwc-2020-meeting-of-states-parties.
  14. United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA), “Youth Declaration for Biosecurity,” December 2021, www.un.org/disarmament/bwc-youth-declaration-for-biosecurity.
  15. UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), “Global Youth Biodiversity Network,” April 18, 2017, www.cbd.int/youth/gybn.shtml.
  16. Maureen Ellis, “Strengthening Global Biosafety & Biosecurity,” One Health & Risk Management 1, no. 1 (2020), https://internationalbiosafety.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/OHRM_1.pdf.
  17. Stephanie M. Norlock et al., “South-to-South Mentoring as a Vehicle for Implementing Sustainable Health Security in Africa,” One Health Outlook 3, no. 1 (2021): 20, https://onehealthoutlook.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s42522-021-00050-x.
  18. Dana Perkins, Kathleen Danskin, and A. Elise Rowe, “Fostering an International Culture of Biosafety, Biosecurity, and Responsible Conduct in the Life Sciences,” Science & Diplomacy, September 29, 2017, www.sciencediplomacy.org/article/2017/biosafety.

     

     

    Annex

    Table 1: Selected International Definitions of Youth    

Table1

 

Table 2: Examples of opportunities for youth involvement in global biosecurity diplomacy

Table2

Electronic resources: Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative (ELBI) Fellowship, After iGEM Delegate Program, Next Generation for Biosecurity CompetitionNext Generation Global Health Security Network Mentorship ProgramIFBA Global Mentorship ProgramBiosecurity Diplomacy Workshop for Young Scientists from the Global SouthYouth 4 Disarmament InitiativeGlobal Health Security Network (GHSN)

The list in Table 2 is not comprehensive: it omits country-specific programs, internships at biosecurity organizations, and diplomacy opportunities not specific to biosecurity, such as the Youth for Biodiversity Network and the American Association for the Advancement of Science–The World Academy of Scientists (AAAS-TWAS) course on Science Diplomacy.

 

Table 3: A list of biosecurity degree programs worldwide

Institution

Degree Type

Program

Country

Arizona State University

Graduate

Master of Arts in Emergency Management and Homeland Security – Biosecurity and Threat Management

United States of America

Box Hill University

Bachelors

Bachelor of Biosecurity Science

Australia

Georgetown University

Certificate

Certificate in Biohazardous Threat Agents and Emerging Infectious Diseases

United States of America

Graduate

Master of Science in Biohazardous Threat Agents and Emerging Infectious Diseases

George Mason University

Graduate

Master of Science in Biodefense

United States of America

Doctoral

Doctor of Philosophy in Biodefense

Hamper Adams University

Graduate

Master of Science in Plant Health and Biosecurity

United Kingdom

John Hopkins University

Graduate

Master of Public Health

(MPH Health Security Scholarship)

United States of America

Doctoral

Doctor of Philosophy in Environmental Health, Health Security

Kansas State University

Graduate

Master of Public Health with an emphasis in Food Safety and Biosecurity

United States of America

Macquarie University

Bachelors

Bachelor of Medical Sciences with a major in Infectious Disease and Biosecurity

Australia

Marmara University

Graduate

Interdisciplinary Biosafety and Biosecurity MSc Program

Turkey

University of Maryland

Graduate

Master of Science in Biotechnology with a specialization in Biosecurity and Biodefense

United States of America

Murdoch University

Certificate

Graduate Certificate in Plant Biosecurity

Australia

Pennsylvania State University

Certificate

Graduate Certificate in Agriculture Biosecurity and Food Defense

United States of America

Graduate

Master of Professional Studies in

Homeland Security – Agricultural Biosecurity and Food Defense

St Louis University

Graduate

Master of Public Health with a concentration in Biosecurity and Disaster Preparedness

United States of America

Üsküdar University

Graduate

Biosecurity Master’s Degree

Turkey

University of Lyon

Graduate

Biosecurity and Biohazard prevention

France

Université Félix Houphouët-Boigny

Graduate

Master Biotechnologie, biosécurité et bioressources

Côte d’Ivoire

The list in Table 3 is not comprehensive. It presents a list of programs identified by English-language searches for the keywords “biosecurity” and “bachelor’s” or “master’s,” with some programs added based on the personal knowledge of the authors and reviewers. We conducted shallow searches in French and Spanish, and identified a number of relevant courses under Public Health and Workplace Safety programs, but did not identify specific biosecurity degrees offered in those languages. This table therefore likely does not capture some degree programs offered in non-English languages.