SPBU hosted a pilot workshop on biosecurity

The interdisciplinary multinational workshop "Designing the Future of Responsible Life Science Research. Identifying Global Problems — Proposing Joint Solutions" was held online from 13 April to 25 May 2022. This pilot project was developed and managed by Associate Professor Dr. A. Malygina (SPBU, Russia), Dr. M. Himmel (Independent biosecurity consultant, Germany), S. Vinke (former iGEM Bielefeld team, Germany) and Dr. M. Dukhinova (ITMO, Russia), all of whom also provided academic input and supervised student activities. Prominent Russian and foreign specialists in international relations and life sciences gave their lectures and commented on students’ presentations.

Sixteen students from St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod (Russia), and Hamburg (Germany) attended the workshop (conducted fully in English): eight international relations students and eight life science students (degree of the participants: two Ph.D. students, nine graduate students, and five undergraduates; gender: ten females and six males).

In the second phase of the workshop, after the students attended introductory lectures, they were divided into four interdisciplinary working groups. Each group had four weeks to analyse a practical case about problems related to biosecurity and responsible conduct in the life sciences, work out solutions and prepare a joint oral presentation of the obtained results.

In the following, student groups and case studies prepared by the organisers are described. Group 1 identified potential risks caused by changes in publication procedures and standards. Group 2 reviewed experiments with synthetic organisms. Group 3 focused on Big data (biology- and health-related) accumulation and processing. Group 4 examined the convergence of science (such as biology and chemistry) and progress in dual-use technologies as challenges to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). All four case studies had a unified design and included references to relevant academic publications, international arms control treaties, and Russian and German national legislation.

This online workshop was the first interdisciplinary educational project hosted by a Russian university that focused on the current problems of strengthening the BWC. In addition, the didactic concept also addressed awareness-raising about dual-use implications of cutting-edge research in the life sciences with a strong focus on self-learning and self-education.

Educational projects which address the need to strengthen international conventions prohibiting biological and chemical weapons are currently running in several countries (some of them were presented in the margins of the 3rd international conference "Global Biosecurity Challenges: Problems and Solutions" in June 2021 in Sochi, Russia). However, none of those courses involved young life scientists together with the students who study international relations to let them develop face-to-face a commonly shared understanding of emerging global biosecurity risks critical to the BWC.

The innovative format of this workshop demonstrated its important potential for bringing up the next generation of the BWC expert community, bridging life sciences and social sciences, and promoting international security dialogue. Furthermore, the didactic concept of this workshop contributed to the further development of self-governance in the life sciences aiming at the prevention of misuse and strengthening understanding of bioethics.

While preparing for the next iteration of the workshop, the organisers are now going to consider the feedback from the attendees and lecturers, expand geographic coverage, and further enhance the interactivity of the project.