Biology and Military Funding: A bad mix?

The field of synthetic biology got a big shot of adrenaline last summer when Alicia Jackson of DARPA, the Q-branch of the US military, at the SB5.0 conference held at Stanford, announced program called Living Foundries aiming to speed the development of new tools for the field.  I attended the Living Foundries Industry Day held for the program, where speakers talked about synthetic biology, how DARPA’s funding programs work, and how to navigate the application process. Dr. Jackson encouraged submitters to think big or not bother applying.  “If you crash,” she said, “leave a crater.”

Non-classified and open to academics and industry, about 120 people attended the workshop, and it turned out to be a great place to catch up with friends at the forefront of synbio.

Like computers, synthetic biology has applications in almost every field, including warfare.  It’s not surprising that DARPA is getting back into the game (they’ve funded related projects in the past).  It’s also not surprising that scientists are keen to tap into more funding.  This the field literally drips potential, but the many granting agencies and finance groups don’t yet appreciate what it can do today let alone where it’s going to go in the future.  DARPA does, and is putting a small amount of money behind it (relative to it’s $3.2 billion budget).

But as a recent post by Ericka Check Hayden on the Discover Magazine blog points out, at least one scientist, Eric Klavins, isn’t comfortable with DARPA injecting cash into synthetic biology.

We need better DNA writing tools (cheaper or faster synthesis will mean more projects done), better bio-detection devices (able to monitor the real-time spread of flu, for example), and more creative ideas being advanced.   This is all good stuff — and DARPA’s careful to vet who they give money to.  Their investment should stimulate a lot more interest in the field and accelerate R&D.

But military investment could come with a hefty price.  While many of the expected outcomes of Living Foundries could benefit the global synbio community, Dr. Jackson made it clear in her Industry Day presentation that, at the end of the day, the work submitted was expected to support the warfighter in some capacity.

Synthetic biologists have already been tapped to consider engineering microbes to make explosives and rocket fuels.  Rob Carlson and Daniel Grushkin examine the implications in a recent Slate article.

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