Op-Ed – Microbial Forensic Attribution: Where Science Meets International Relations

Christopher A. Bidwell, JD, Senior Fellow for Nonproliferation Law and Policy, Federation of American Scientists & Mark Jansson, Program Manager, CRDF Global.

The U.S. government is making significant investments in bio forensics as a tool for attribution. In order for that investment to pay-off, it must be combined with investments in international collaborations so that the science behind any future attribution claims that may be made are accepted as fact, both in scientific and political terms. To better understand how evidence derived from microbial forensics will be received in international contexts among people with different cultural, professional, and political backgrounds, the Federation of American Scientists convened a daylong workshop involving domestic and international participants with expertise in forensic science, public health, law, and security policy. Additionally, the research team performed a literature review from the legal, life science, and social science realms to both inform preparations for the workshop and to complement the findings derived from it.

Key findings from the workshop were three-fold: (1) using international partners to build trust in the credibility of the messenger (not just the message) is important to fill potential “credibility gaps” that can exist between the United States and other countries; (2) the media content generation, policy responses, and scientific investigation related to a suspected biological attack all operate on competing timelines that can hamper effective communication and decision making; and (3) forensic data will need considerable support from other information sources in order to marshal international cooperation in taking action against biological attack perpetrators.

The literature review explored some of the specific cultural, ideological, and cognitive factors that could affect how foreign audiences will respond to forensic evidence attributing a biological attack to a given country or group. Key findings were that: (1) cultural differences related to conflict resolution can affect the way microbial forensic evidence is received internationally, as some may question the science as a proxy for questioning the overall U.S. response to a suspected biological attack; (2) strengthening the process through which microbial forensic evidence is created is just as important, if not more, than strengthening the science; (3) credible science needs a credible messenger, and credibility is fragile on politically sensitive issues such as those involving the prospect of terrorism; (4) advanced engagement of international partners can help mitigate natural, and politically expedient, tendencies to disregard or devalue scientific information that presents inconvenient truths to public officials abroad; and (5) the high probative weight that the United States affords to scientific evidence does not necessarily translate into other political or legal contexts abroad.

1. This article is an excerpt taken from Microbial Forensic Attribution: Where Science Meets International Relations, published by Christopher A. Bidwell and Mark Jansson on March 31, 2014. Mark Jansson was formerly an Adjunct Fellow for Special Projects at the Federation of American Scientists.

The full report can be viewed here