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January 19, 2014 11:00 pm

The dawning of the age of biology

Innovations in the application of biology will transform the 21st century

What are we missing? This is a question I constantly ask myself as I take on new responsibilities as dean at The Fletcher School at Tufts University.

We are certainly teaching the obvious touchstones of international relations: diplomacy, international law, security studies, development and human security, the environment, information technology, political science, key regional studies and global economics. We worry about current wars, the melting ice caps, micro-lending to lift people out of poverty, etc.

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Yet increasingly I believe we are missing something crucial that will reshape international relations in this turbulent 21st century: the coming age of biology.

Just as our understanding of physics changed societies a hundred years ago, and changes in information have reshaped us over the decades, I believe we are on the cusp of profound changes in our knowledge and abilities in the realm of biology.

As I survey the landscape of the next decade, it seems the truly big muscle movements will come from the world of biology. They include increased life expectancy, artificially enhanced human performance, synthetic biological changes to crops, energy that is produced through biological reaction, implantation of information devices in our bodies, the conquest of persistent diseases, artificial limbs and eyes, 4-D printing and synthetic genomics.

While all these innovations will have deeply personal impact, as well as enormous importance in all of our nations, they will also create challenge and opportunity in the international sphere. Those of us involved in graduate education in the international realm need to begin to grapple with the nature of these changes and how we go about teaching our graduates to be prepared to meet them, surmount the challenges and capitalise on the opportunities.

Indeed, it is the fusion between biology, information and technology that will have the greatest impact – something some have called “the singularity”. The implications for the international sphere are immense.

Admittedly, this can sound like science fiction. Are we not actually in the Age of Information? The hottest debates in the international sphere today seem to revolve far more around the processing of information, its use in big data applications, the level of surveillance conducted by both governments and private sector entities, the potential for cyber war and the need for civilian and military capabilities to protect the enormous and vital global commons into which the internet has evolved.

Yet we sit on the verge of hugely positive game-changers in the biological sphere. Think about the implications of even an average 10 per cent increase in human life expectancy – what will that mean to societies and nations? What about a 20 per cent increase? How will we cope with more people living ever longer? The ability to manipulate the human genome and create stronger, smarter and healthier human beings is closer and closer. What if one nation begins to do so? What are the international protocols for dealing with artificially enhanced crops and livestock? How will energy markets be reshaped by the ability to create large levels of energy from bio sources? How do soldiers with powerfully enhanced abilities shape the balance of power and how do they fit with the laws of war?

Reflect upon the potential for a global pandemic created by synthetic biology. The Spanish flu of 1918 killed 50m globally in under two years – on a population-adjusted basis that would be roughly 250m today. What are the international means through which governments will negotiate their response to such an event? Is there an international convention that exists upon which to draw? How is international leadership exercised in such a scenario?

The good news is that research and scholarship into biology is happening globally, But we need to do more to prepare for the international policy aspects of it.

In that sense, there is an important role for the world of international scholarship and education:

Creating what might be termed academic “bridge programmes” at universities that have both strong schools of international studies and equally robust institutions in the world of biology, eg medical, veterinary, nutrition, dental and public health. Such programmes could eventually offer a graduate degree in international biological policy for example.

Hiring faculty with international policy credentials and practical bioscience experiences to come to universities that can combine both teaching and scholarly research in the international aspects of biology.

Searching for grants and endowments that can encourage such academic fusion, potentially focusing on policy tools that can enhance the ability to successfully combine biology, information and technology with international impact.

Conducting simulations that explore policy implications for some of the more likely events in the world of biology, eg life extension, pandemics and performance enhancements.

Much of the international future will be driven by changes in our knowledge and application of biology. Some elements of this will benefit the world, other aspects will challenge us deeply. And all of this will occur in the not-too-distant future. It is said quite frequently that “biology is destiny”. True enough: we need to have the vision to see “the next big thing” and prepare ourselves for it; not just in the laboratories, but in the international classrooms as well.

Admiral James Stavridis is dean of The Fletcher School, Tufts University. He retired from active service in the US Navy in 2013 after four years as Supreme Allied Commander at Nato

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