On 2 September 2021, the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) spotlighted youth contributions to global biosecurity efforts in the margins of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) Meeting of Experts 2 (MX2) on the “Review of Developments in the Field of Science and Technology Related to the Convention”. The side event “Promoting youth engagement in responsible innovation under the Biological Weapons Convention”, was organised together with the International Federation of Biosafety Associations (IFBA), the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM), Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security (CHS) and the Nuclear Threat Initiative Biological Policy and Programs (NTI | bio).
As the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates, a skilled and prepared biosecurity workforce is key to addressing future biosecurity challenges. Over the years, the organizers have led successful and well-established initiatives empowering the next generation of leaders in the biosecurity community, including the IFBA Global Mentorship Programme, the iGEM Competitions, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Fellowship, the NTI Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition and UNODA’s Youth for Biosecurity Initiative. These initiatives have created striving networks of cross-disciplinary young biosecurity experts who could greatly contribute to multilateral diplomatic efforts to enhance effective biosecurity measures – a resource that has been underused to date.
In a concerted effort, the five entities showcased some of the concrete actions that youth in their networks have developed, highlighting the potential to harness the young scientists’ expertise for finding solutions to current biosecurity policy issues. Additionally, the side event offered space for dialogue between young scientists and diplomats, thereby transferring scientific know-how to BWC policymakers that could be utilized in diplomatic fora.
In the first round of interactive panel discussions, youth representatives Mr. Geoffrey Otim (Uganda), Ms. Isha Berry (Canada), Mr. Javier Rodriguez (Argentina), Ms. Mayra Ameneiros (Argentina) and Mr. Suryesh Namdeo (India) shared their experiences with the organizers’ respective responsible innovation initiatives and reflected on what the future of multilateral biosecurity could look like. The subsequent discussion touched on the ways in which the various networks allowed youth to come together and explore synergies, in turn enabling them to become more involved in international biosecurity, science diplomacy and disarmament; the importance of linking up with other opportunities for youth involvement in disarmament, such as UNODA’s #Youth4Disarmament initiative; and youth-driven biosecurity projects in the Global South.
In the second discussion, young panelists presented case studies of concrete youth-led projects related to responsible science. First, Mr. Jonas B. Sandbrink (Gemany), Ms. Sriharshita Musunuri (United States of Amerrica) and Mr. Joshua T. Monrad (Denmark), winners of the 2020 Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition, presented their joint paper on “Widening the Framework for Regulation of Dual-Use Research in the Wake of the COVID-19 Pandemic”, which includes recommendations to reduce the possibility for dual-use research to be misapplied by nefarious actors amid a pandemic. Then, Ms. Svenja Vinke (Germany) updated participants on the policy outcomes that emerged from the iGEM Dual Use Workshops, aimed at raising awareness among young scientists on the importance of considering dual use risks in their work. Ms. Shrestha Rath (India) continued by spotlighting several follow-on activities, which involved “Values and Risks Workshops”, aiming at raising awareness on potential risks from iGEM projects; the “iGEM policy hackathon”, engaging young scientists on science policy related to synthetic biology; and the “iGEM Delegates Programme”, providing an opportunity for iGEM-ers to participate in multilateral synthetic biology discussions.
A recurring theme in each discussion was ways to involve young scientists more systematically in the deliberations held under the Convention. The driven and future-oriented young biosecurity specialists reflected on how they envision an innovative and bio-secure future with respect to the BWC, as well as what they have accomplished to date to contribute to this collective goal. For their part, the event organizers will continue promoting the participation of multidisciplinary youth networks in the upcoming BWC Meeting of States Parties and Ninth Review Conference of the Convention, to help bridge the gap between policy making and implementation.
The recording of the Side Event is available here.