BNS0022

Written evidence submitted by School of International Futures (SOIF)

Introduction

This submission provides two types of evidence: the authors’ experience of the science and technology, foresight and security policy apparatus of the UK Government; and relevant inputs from younger voices extracted from the wider National Strategy for the Next Generations (NSxNG) pilot programme (described in annex A).

We have organised our response according to the six topics of the inquiry, covering all except topic 4 and addressing topics 2 & 3 together:

1. the main drivers of biosecurity risks to human health in the UK, including from pandemics and emerging infectious diseases; 

2-3. how, and how effectively, these risks are monitored and assessed by the UK Government and the extent to which the Government has supported domestic preparedness against biosecurity risks;

5. the extent to which policymaking in this area draws on cross-government input, and how well preparedness plans have taken a genuinely 'fusion doctrine' approach; and

6. the oversight of such policymaking and the management of biosecurity risks within overall national security risks.

The NSxNG 18-35-year-old perspectives come from mining the content of the programme longform surveys and virtual workshops, enhanced by brief follow-on interviews specifically on the topic of biosecurity. We did not ask young participants the inquiry questions directly; there is no expectation that they know the details of current UK policy. We have instead sought out where their views would affect these topics.

Summary

There does appear to be significant difference in security concerns, definitions and risk appetites across generations.  We therefore imagine further valuable insights and – in particular - different solutions would be derived from engaging more systematically with younger perspectives on these issues.  Together with these young people, the authors view that the pandemic is a warning about the nature of the 21st century risk landscape: neither existential nor every day – a pervasive and cumulative risk environment rather than dramatic incidents to be mitigated and controlled. Within this environment, technology plays a critical role both as a risk multiplier and resilience-builder (of diffused local responses as well as international collaboration), yet the capability to deeply imagine the scale and consequences of these changes is severely limited within government as a whole. And finally, the culture and mechanisms of preparedness across government that are required for this reality, demands major progress and innovation in existing cross-government processes, institutions and capabilities.

 

Inquiry topic 1: the main drivers of biosecurity risks to human health in the UK, including from pandemics and emerging infectious diseases

Survey respondents spoke about a future with distributed identities, non-state actors and where risks are not isolated by borders. This complexity creates new kinds of risks, including the potential for biosecurity risk. In general, they accept this as the way things will be, and this changes the meaning of the security and prevention mechanisms young people seek.

When asked specifically about biosecurity risks beyond the current pandemic, individuals tended to jump between long term subtle changes to our environment and large-scale targeted attacks - between environmental degradation and biological weapons of mass destruction.

Embracing the power of many identities
As inequality grows and experiences diverge, a unified national identity becomes increasingly difficult to maintain. But for our young respondents, it is also undesirable. In their own lives they have learned that power comes from exploring and exposing more, and more divergent, identities, not a single, unified narrative.

One participant said of the present day: “With conflicts being more localised and ideological, I believe we have seen the differences within nations highlighted more as there is less of a national identity to rally around.”

Redefining the meaning of security
Climate change, pandemics, and cyber-warfare are planetary and systemic, not localised between enemies or isolated by borders, with some clear consequences:

“Traditional armed conflict then becomes much more centred around asymmetric threats such as terrorism, narcotics, and piracy - this provides its own challenges as the enemy is often harder to identify and prosecute.”

“The changing nature of conflict is such that it is highly escalatory and very difficult to reign in, once started.”

Concerns about non-state actors and new forms of organised power came up again during the workshops. This was usually combined with ideas about changing identity - either the rise of populism or towards smaller communities and interest-based groups.[1]

Technology as a cross-border agent

There were some mentions of technology and its role in creating new kinds of threats:

“Changing technology will change the way modern conflict occurs. New players on the global stage and shifted powers means new ideas etc which will therefore affect the wider international system as new countries introduce their ways and have a larger influence to the rest of the world.”

This concerned some respondents: “I think the threat of technology being used for nefarious reasons across borders will be really difficult to navigate, especially in what looks set to be an era of less rather than more international collaboration”.

Some pointed to particular data security issues: “Increasing technology will make us more networked with other countries. Therefore we need to have good cyber security and therefore protect the freedoms such technologies offer us.”

During the workshops, worries about online disinformation and lack of security came up in several places, while one group chose to focus entirely on quantum computing and cybersecurity.[2]

One of the interviewees speaking to us about biosecurity chose to focus on how personal data protection issues are increasing as biometric technologies - from Bluetooth thermometers to neurological implants - become more widespread. They were concerned that there would need to be a new era of cybersecurity alongside this new more intimate technology.

Environmental degradation

Survey respondents often mentioned the long-term threat of environmental degradation as countries industrialise. As ecosystems become more fragile, there is less resilience to changes to climate or to manmade interventions. This came up in follow-on interviews, expressed variously as concern for loss of wildlife through to worries that air pollution and waste management pose long term risks that could turn into security risks without

Technology, and its role in industrialisation, is seen as part of the problem. But for others, it could be the solution: “particularly with ecological issues, that and new technologies come hand in hand. This is where we develop new technologies in order to stabilise the natural world.”

Lack of personal experience leads to lack of resilience

Several respondents covered how developing countries may actually have greater resilience under this kind of threat: “the threat of terrorism has the greatest impact in wealthy countries where populations are less used to dealing with conflict and small scale, low tech attacks are difficult to prevent, while being highly effective in terms of damage caused.”

This was often paired with a concern that growth in individual, community and industry resilience in the UK as a result of COVID could easily be lost:  “COVID-19 has highlighted the limited resilience of many industries and how many employees do not have the skills needed to pivot industries. As technology continues to change the way we live our lives, this effect will become more pronounced.”

Unlike countries that have had to respond to SARS, Ebola or even warfare or extreme natural disasters, this was the first time many UK citizens have had to manage uncertainty about what was possible in their daily routines, food supply and jobs. Several interviewees argued that the UK can do more to support the development of more personal security - the ability to cope with ongoing uncertainty without panic.

Everyday vs Existential risks

Follow-on interviews also talked about bioterror, biological weapons and existential threats against humanity. But they found it harder to describe what response the UK should have in the increasingly complex systems of power and identity they foresaw. There was a recognition that the everyday can become an existential threat if left alone for too long, with climate change as the key example.

 

Inquiry topic 2-3: how, and how effectively, these risks are monitored and assessed by the UK Government and the extent to which the Government has supported domestic preparedness against biosecurity risks

As authors, we see the preparedness failure as primarily on the demand-side, rather than the supply-side: the lack of connective tissue needed for policy processes to actively incorporate and act on the available insights.  Expert advice and threat assessment in the UK are of good quality, but preparedness falls down in the cross-departmental responses and coordinating interventions across the local, national and international levels. We make some recommendations on how to address this in section 6.  Here, we explore three points about preparedness including those raised by NSxNG participants.

 

Expert advice does not turn into action

Many survey respondents worried about lack of preparations for COVID despite expert advice, and were not clear that things have changed:

“COVID has also proven how woefully unprepared we were for even a relatively well-predicted emergency situation. What on earth would we do if a real black swan event happened?!”

Covid-19 is a sign now. There may be other outbreaks or possibly nothing - hence why we haven’t been prepared despite predictions and warnings from subject matter experts.”

Looking back to 2006, the Government Office of Science’s Sigma Scan - which included hundreds of signals of change – included a scan hit that the world at some point could soon be swept by pandemics in a scenario very similar to the one we are living through.  This was assessed as relatively likely and uncontroversial, though the timeline was uncertain.[3] Even before the infamously ignored US Obama pandemic playbook, the 2010 US Congress commissioned Project on National Security Reform included a ‘red death’ 2020 scenario, where a bio-attack caused pandemic swept around the world.[4]

Despite the Day Review of cross-government horizon-scanning, and the resulting mechanisms for more coordinated horizon scanning,[5] there is little evidence that this monitoring system is taken sufficiently seriously at a senior level to be systematically converted into policy and resourced in contingency planning other than by the Civil Contingency Secretariat. Having said that, the departmental Chief Scientists network has been an important development and should be strengthened and resourced to drive cross-departmental awareness and coordination.

The next crisis will not be a pandemic

Respondents said that pandemic preparedness may have improved, but at the risk of preparations for other kinds of risks:

In our response to Covid-19, it is possible that we become very good at pandemic preparedness and response, but fail to adequately prepare for other equally serious risks. For example, risks arising from Artificial Intelligence (AI), biotechnology, extreme climate change scenarios and nuclear threats. The UK must seize the opportunity to learn lessons from Covid-19, ensuring that we are better prepared for the other once-in-a-century events that we know will happen in our life times, and our children’s lifetimes.”

In follow-on interviews, this often led them to point out the difference in nature between what the global population experienced in the last few months and existential risks of biological weapons or the slow-burn of environmental degradation. Pandemics sit in a middle ground where neither the apparatus of emergency response nor task forces for systemic risk will support them. There were concerns that the UK is not equipped to respond to these risks, building national resilience ahead of time.

International collaboration

At one of the workshops, following on from the survey, one group of participants chose to focus on COVID as a testbed for other transnational threats. They argue that the UK has an important international convening role and is in the right position to lead new alliances for intelligence sharing related to global challenges - from climate change to human trafficking. They say that the pandemic has shown the true colours of different nations’ ability and willingness to respond to crises, and that this should be the basis of the UK's crisis response and intelligence gathering work in the future. For example, they say that crisis-related information should be shared differently depending on the other nations they are sharing with, and that this system should be separate from internal UK crisis information sharing.[6]

The importance of the UK’s role in collaboration came through in many of the survey responses: they want to keep “looking outwards to collaborate with other nations with the newest technological advancements”. One of the interviews also mentioned the UK’s unusual global position, ability to bring India, China, the USA and others together. But others felt that new alliances, not built on the legacy of colonial relations, were preferable.

Respondents underlined the importance of acknowledging associated risks that come from ad-hoc responses, pointing to how tactical alliances in the developments of COVID vaccines have been unfair to some nations.

Historically, this risk has already played out. Indonesia shared their data about H5N1 cases but stopped after concerns that commercial vaccines would be too expensive for widespread use in developing nations like their own.[7] Alliances, badly formed, can be as damaging as vaccine nationalism.

 

Inquiry topic 5: the extent to which policymaking in this area draws on cross-government input, and how well preparedness plans have taken a genuinely 'fusion doctrine' approach

There needs to be stronger systems for anticipating risks across government. This came out in two ways in the surveys and follow-up interviews: the need for deep knowledge of technology in government in order to form the best security advice; and responsible technology as a way for the UK to influence internationally.

UK as a technology power - where our strength comes from

In their visions for the UK’s role in the world in 2045, participants focused on where the UK’s strengths have historically come from. In general, the UK leads in “good ideas helping to shape the planet.”

Some participants started off with worries about the UK’s diminishing technological capabilities: “as the world developed through technology the UK didn’t adapt quick enough and was only reactive, not pre-emptive. Finally resulting in the shift of power away from the UK.”

Another said that technology development needs to come hand in hand with a willingness to embrace change: “technology is a gateway and a catalyst for development. While other nations are more open to change it may hinder the UK’s future.”

Others spoke directly to the excellence of the UK’s research base:

“More investment should be given to research, and more opportunities should be made available for academics.”

“I believe that new technology frontiers is the only driver that will create serious opportunities for the UK, given its excellent research sector.”

But most spoke about technology in terms of climate or economic challenges. Comments frequently referred to renewable technology: “the UK is at the forefront of innovative technologies and the UK now has an opportunity to become world leading in the next age of technology which I believe will revolve around clean energy and renewable energy.”

This is unsurprising given the visibility of these issues today. But it also shows some blindness to technology opportunities for prosperity in other areas. A group at the workshops chose to focus on technology and discussed biotech amongst other technology strengths in the UK.[8]

Smart monitoring policy - integrating technology and security

One survey respondent did mention the link between government technology funding and biosecurity:

“In biotechnology, we should support our institutions (e.g. ARPA UK) to pioneer robust biosecurity. For example, this could be scoping out new biodefence applications of horizon technologies and helping bring opportunities to technical readiness.”

Horizon scanning that makes use of the insights from the latest government funded research and innovation through UKRI is also an important part of a joined-up approach. It is telling that the UK Life Sciences industrial Strategy includes no mention of the value of life sciences in supporting security - or indeed as a risk to security.[9] More could be done to build on expertise in the UK’s research base. There are some excellent programmes that do this. DSTL’s Defence and Security Accelerator programme (delivered through UKRI’s funding portal) does not just provide funding for technology companies. It also provides insights into cutting-edge technology that can be fed back into policy makers. Security policy makers can be better connected to the research policy colleagues. With that in mind, we support others’ recommendation for a Biosecurity Leadership Council or a National Centre that coordinates research and policy conversations.[10]

Improved connections between these parts of government could be complemented by more proactive engagement by regulators and security experts with scientists in areas that could aid biosecurity as well as threaten it. The FBI programme of engagement with synthetic biologists in the US is one model for this.[11]

Technology for global public goods - integrating technology and influence

Alongside working from our strengths, the respondents' visions of 2045 had a clear idea of how the UK should lead. Our young respondents see the United Kingdom acquiring soft, indirect, networked power and leading through ideas, innovation, inspiration and influence: “playing a cleverer game. Making ourselves useful.”

While our young respondents have limited formal foreign policy knowledge, they understand the need to promote and defend UK interests. But they define these interests in a new way. Given the global context that defines their lives and opportunities, shared values become the strategic language of the future.

One participant imagined that this would happen by gaining influence as a convening power  in the wake of COVID: “by drawing together off the back of the COVID-10 pandemic we were able to be a leading light internationally on issues of great importance to the global community.”

Most relevant for this inquiry, many participants linked technology leadership, and prosperity, with the UK’s role in influencing better lives for those around the world:

“Nations are working with each-other rather than against to develop new technologies and ideas which have tackled a variety of issues including poverty, disease, climate change and war. The UK is a pioneer and leader in these developments and has helped other nations to develop themselves.”

Another hopes that the UK “remains a strong economic and scientific nation - always at the forefront of new technology and looking for solutions to help make lives better for everyone around the world.”

However, follow-on interviewees were sometimes more careful about repeating historical positions that they do not identify with. For example, there was concern about focusing too much on being number one in any particular technology, rather than in supporting collaborations that build on different nation’s strengths. In another case there was a worry that bringing together goals around prosperity and influence, prosperity can win out against other initiatives that should be protected simply because they support human rights, health or education.

One survey respondent recommended improving technology know-how in government in order to ensure that technology is used for these kinds of shared values rather than with economic targets in mind:

“I think we need to massively improve the technical understanding and capability of our government. Having smart and ambitious people who understand how tech can be used for good actually deciding how it can be used at a national level to decrease rather than increase inequality will be essential.”

Leadership in ethical use of technology

There was also interest in the UK carving out a leadership role in responsible use of technology:

“The predicament comes when the rapid growth of technological advancements outstrips the growth of our wisdom. We should devote our energies into promoting the responsible deployment and governance of new technologies.”

AI was often used as a case study for this could be done: “In AI...the UK could position itself as the face of responsible cutting-edge innovation.”

For some this is part of establishing a fresh image of the UK overseas: “the UK will still aspire to be a world leader, but perhaps in a more ethical manner than it has been at times in the past.”

Inquiry Topic 6: the oversight of such policymaking and the management of biosecurity risks within overall national security risks

We argue that there are three ways that systems for oversight needs to be improved: better structures and more resources to convert expert insight into action; responding to the desire for more direct discussion with citizens about UK security policy and positions; and finding a clearer place for threats that are neither immediate nor significant ongoing issues.

Converting expert advice into action

At SOIF we see the failure as primarily on the demand-side, rather than the supply-side: the need for policy processes to actively incorporate and act on the available insights.  There needs to be more resources given to teams that devise responses to scanning results as those providing them.  Effective organisational interventions to improve this conundrum needs to be systemic in nature and address: institutions, structures and programmes; skills, people and champions; processes, policies and regulation; and culture, behaviour and communications. (This is summarised graphically in a capability matrix in Annex B.) 

Failed attempts tend to focus on only one “silver bullet” - e.g. a new regulation, rather than the changes of behaviour and wider incentives or processes that lead to acting on signals that move plans away from the status quo. We have recommended elsewhere that the UK needs an independent Chief Risk Officer (CRO) and an associated unit that carries out depoliticised risk assessments, supports departments in developing flexible risk response plans, assigns responsibility for acting on risks to ministers and holds them to account for their department’s risk response plans.

Across the system, incentives need to exist for spotting and responding to low probability high impact events, through practice e.g. cross-HMG war-gaming (across domestic and international departments, and including NDPBs and local authorities), but also through building ministerial and perm sec demand for alternative scenarios. 

We have not discussed this level of detail with NSxNG participants as yet. But follow-on interviews were already pulling in this direction. In particular, they saw the connection between the branches of government that work with the research and technology community and improving security and influence overseas.

Distributed identity and distributed responsibility

In the follow-on interviews, some participants combined ideas about distributed identity, the importance of community and approaches to security. It was clear that the role of government in everyday security was very different in some visions of 2045.

The willingness of younger generations to live with uncertainty means they may ask for less from governments in terms of protection. But there is also a desire to have better access to information - for example scientific discoveries - and support to decide what to do with this within their communities.

This could mean an increased role for local governments in supporting everyday security of citizens that are interested in building their personal resilience to change.  And an imaginative approach to the role of non-executive and non-traditional approaches to dialogues and community level interventions to build community awareness and responses.

More fundamentally, the desire to develop a foreign policy built on shared values also implies new ways of grasping those shared values. Citizens Assemblies like those that are systems to use in Scotland or parts of the charitable and NGO sector become as relevant to foreign policy as special interest groups.

Working in the space between every day and existential threats

As mentioned in topic 1, interviewees found it hard to pair this kind of distributed responsibility for security with persistent worries about existential threats. For example, climate change may produce risks that everyone can take steps to mitigate - from greener transport to supporting local food economies - but how that supports, and challenges national policy is not clear. There needs to be ways to bring more voices to the table often designed for emergency response.

One less obvious lesson from the pandemic that came up in our interviews was that threats that are neither short term crises nor in need of active long term management, can get stuck in a no man’s land of policy making. They are not serious enough for emergency response nor systemic enough for a task force. This gap in preparedness may rear its head again and again this century without more active measures in place. 

Jessica Bland and Cat Tully

 

29 September 2020

 

 

Annex A: The National Strategy for the Next Generations, (NSxNG) programme

       The NSxNG programme launched in May 2020 with the mission to give the next generations a central role in shaping their country’s future. The project has so far focused on the UK, led by a coalition of organisations: the School of International Futures, Shout out, Restless Development, the Democratic Society, Agora, APPG Future Generations, Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, RUSI, and the KCL Grand Strategy Centre. A long form survey of young voices and a series of workshops is already providing important insights.[12]

       There are 92 completed submissions, with 68 under 35-year olds. 65 were from male respondents and 27 from female. Respondents were born or live in the UK. Two follow-on workshops run by the think tank Agora took place on 9 September 2020 and 14 September 2020. We used these opportunities to listen to group conversations relevant to biosecurity, but let the participants drive the broader topics they saw as important. Ideas from the group discussions at this workshop can be viewed on the Policy Kitchen platform.

       10 follow-on short interviews were completed with participants in both initiatives, focused specifically on biosecurity and the questions of this inquiry. We are particularly thankful to Will Reynolds, James Holtby, Mariana Vieira and Mariah Loukou for their willingness to test out ideas for the submission, as well as Catherine Rhodes, Executive Director at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk for her advice related to biosecurity, catastrophic and existential risks.

       At School of International Futures, we are keen to find opportunities to bring our interim results to the attention of policy makers. But please note that the findings continue to be developed through workshops running until the end of 2020 when Phase I of the project concludes. Phase II will start in 2021.

 

 

Annex B: SOIF Foresight Governance Capability Matrix – institutional interventions are needed across the four areas

             

 


[1] Groups from these workshops left notes of their conversations online. An example of a relevant conversation can be accessed here: https://www.policykitchen.com/group/national-strategy-next-generations/idea/changing-nature-conflict

[2] https://www.policykitchen.com/group/national-strategy-next-generations/idea/quantum-computing-and-security

[3] Unfortunately, the publicly available archived copy of the Government website from that year does not include the details of this scan. School of International Futures only have a private copy, since one of the authors worked with it at the time.

[4] The Working Group’s report is publicly available here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/235085209_Project_on_National_Security_Reform_Vision_Working_Group_Report_and_Scenarios

[5] The Review of Cross-Government Horizon Scanning (2013) https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/review-of-cross-government-horizon-scanning

[6] View the participants’ full description of their idea here: https://www.policykitchen.com/group/national-strategy-next-generations/idea/security-and-environment

[7] WHO Press release on this story from 2007: https://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2007/pr09/en/

[8] https://www.policykitchen.com/group/national-strategy-next-generations/idea/tech-its-impact-uk-global-position

[9] 2017 Life Sciences Industrial Strategy: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/life-sciences-industrial-strategy

[10] https://www.fhi.ox.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/UKG-Biosecurity-Written-Submission-C-Nelson-et-al.pdf

[11] As described in this article, ‘The FBI and biohackers: an unusual relationship”:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5278613/

[12] https://www.policykitchen.com/group/41/stream