Erika Check Hayden is a journalist at Nature and educator in San Francisco. Her work has taken her to wild and beautiful places, but focuses most of the time on the inner terrain of the human body. You can find her online at erikacheck.com and twitter.com/Erika_Check.
This piece was originally published at The Last Word on Nothing.
A few years ago, Eric Klavins found himself starting at the ceiling of his room in the Athenaeum, a private lodging on the grounds of the California Institute of Technology, in the middle of the night. Unable to sleep, Klavins was instead pondering a question that had been posed to him earlier that day at a meeting.
Klavins, a robotics researcher, was funded by grants from the U.S. Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) on robot self-organization: making many simple robots work together to assemble themselves into a shape or structure. While working on the grants, Klavins would routinely be called into meetings to discuss his work with various defense officials, and it was at one of these meetings that a Defense Department researcher had posed his question. “He said, ‘Do you think you could figure out how something that has been broken up into lots of little pieces could be reassembled so we could figure out what it was?’” he recalls.
Klavins spent hours thinking about how one could actually do it. Then, he realized, he had no idea why one would even want to—and hadn’t asked that question at all during all the years he worked with Defense Department funding. He suddenly felt uncomfortable about that. “It bothered me that someone would spend their time studying how things get blown up and working to make things get blown up better,” Klavins says. Not long after, he decided to steer away from defense funding and towards applications in biology and medical research that are part of the realm of synthetic biology, the field of science that tries to turn biology into more of an engineering discipline.
But if Klavins thought that the change would help him escape the moral dilemmas that used to keep him up in the middle of the night, he was wrong. The U.S. Department of Defense has emerged as one of the major funders of synthetic biology; last fall, for instance, DARPA accepted proposals for a highly coveted set of grants in a new program, Living Foundries, that aims to “enable the rapid development of previously unattainable technologies and products, leveraging biology to solve challenges associated with production of new materials, novel capabilities, fuel and medicines.”
The Office of Naval Research also funds heavily in synthetic biology as well. And while most DoD-funded projects so far have not specifically focused on military applications, that can’t be said of a recent “statement of need” that asked synthetic biologists for their ideas on how the technology could be used to make greener explosives [PDF].
Klavins’s fellow synthetic biologists seem largely unconcerned with the fact that the military is becoming an ever-larger presence in their field. They point out that the military doesn’t press them to work on particular applications, and lets them freely pursue basic research on fundamental questions. They argue that defense department funding—particularly from agencies such as DARPA—has enabled the development of myriad civilian applications, such as the global positioning system and the Internet. And indeed, many scientists are grateful that the generals are stepping in when traditional, more conservative agencies such as the U.S. National Institutes of Health have largely declined to fund the field.
But to Klavins, these arguments sound familiar, and he has an answer for every one of them. “People will say that everything has a dual use; you can use a transistor in a laptop or an ICBM”—an inter-continental ballistic missile—he says. “It’s a question about what uses you explore first, and I’d rather have them be in energy, the environment, and global health.”
These arguments will sound familiar to physical scientists and engineers, who have debated them for decades: physics gave the world nuclear weapons in World War Two, and engineers at Texas Instruments devised laser-guided bombs that were deployed to deadly effect by the Air Force in Vietnam.
Biologists have of late been spared these dilemmas, as President Nixon officially dismantled the nation’s biological weapons program in 1969. But synthetic biology is about transforming biology into an engineering discipline, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the field is confronting the same sorts of questions that may be familiar to physical scientists and engineers.
So far, Klavins is a relatively lone voice in the wilderness. But that may change as more of his colleagues find themselves staring at the ceiling in the wee hours of the dawn, pondering questions about applications of their research that they had never imagined.
Photo: A U.S. Army soldier quickly dons a nuclear, biological, chemical mask during training in South Korea.