Perry Fellows take on the policy of bioengineering, military doctrine and nuclear deterrence

1 Megan Palmer mug Megan Palmer

What if scientists engineer a virus that could help doctors design vaccines to prevent a global pandemic – but a blueprint of that very virus gets into the hands of terrorists who use it to build a biological weapon?

Should – and can – governments step in to mandate controls on such bioengineering? Or is it more effective to rely on the private sector to police itself and develop potentially life-saving biotechnologies without the shackles and bureaucracy of big government?

It’s a classic dual-use dilemma.

These are among the public policy questions Megan Palmer will tackle as an incoming More information on the Perry Fellowship. She intends to research the complex governance challenges accompanying increased access to biotechnology and how countries are directing their innovation and security strategies to favor centralized or distributed control of access to information and materials.

“Developments in biotechnology have been heralded as fueling an industrial revolution in the life sciences with significant economic potential,” said Palmer, who received her PhD in bioengineering from MIT. “Yet biotechnology can both pose and mitigate key security concerns, such as bioweapons development vs. deterrence and preparedness.”

Megan Palmer

Joining Palmer as Perry Fellows are Karl Eikenberry and Brad Roberts.

Eikenberry is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan who led the civilian surge directed by President Obama from 2009 to 2011. Roberts, until recently, was the deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

“Karl, Megan and Brad are an exceptional trio, with expertise ranging from counterinsurgency to nuclear weapons to biosecurity,” said Amy Zegart, co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation. “We are delighted that they will be joining the CISAC community and enhancing our efforts to tackle the world's most important security challenges."

Policy Scholars

Perry fellows reside at CISAC for a year of policy-relevant research on international security issues. They join other distinguished scientists, social scientists and engineers who collaborate on security problems that cannot be solved within any single field of study. The fellowship was established to honor Perry, the 19th U.S. secretary of defense and former CISAC co-director, and to recognize his leadership in the cause of peace.

Eikenberry will focus on foreign interventions and counterinsurgency doctrine, as well as U.S.-Asia Pacific strategy and the rise of China and the future of NATO. He will also write and talk about the state of the humanities and social sciences in the United States.

Eikenberry, who has master’s degrees from Harvard in East Asian Studies and Stanford in political science, has become a vocal advocate for the humanities, which are on the wane as students turn toward computer science, technology and engineering. A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, he also earned an interpreter’s certificate in Mandarin Chinese from the British Foreign Commonwealth Office and has an advanced degree in Chinese history from Nanjing University in China.

Karl Eikenberry

Eikenberry wants students to know that his humanities and social sciences education underpinned a long and meaningful career as an Army officer, diplomat and scholar.

“The humanities and social sciences help us understand the complex historical, geographic, economic, social, cultural and political roots of conflict, and they enable us to better consider the consequences of our policy decisions,” he said.

Roberts intends to explore the question of how to balance efforts to sustain an effective deterrent for the 21st century with efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons altogether.

“Each U.S. president since the end of the Cold War has emphasized the importance of adapting the U.S. nuclear deterrent away from Cold War requirements and toward the future,” Roberts said. “But what does that mean in practice?”

Perry was a tenacious Cold War proponent of nuclear weapons as deterrence. Today, he is a supporter of Global Zero – the movement for a world without nuclear weapons. But how to get there has been a point of contention fueling CISAC research for years.

“How do we balance the effort to sustain an effective deterrent for 21st century purposes with the effort to reduce the number and role of nuclear weapons, while encouraging others to join us in taking steps toward the elimination of nuclear weapons?” Roberts said.

Roberts, who first worked with Perry in 2008 when the former secretary of defense chaired the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, said the fellowship would provide him the opportunity to develop his thinking on the issue of nuclear strategy and write a “short book for a broad audience.”

Palmer, who was previously a CISAC affiliate while doing postdoctoral studies in the Department of Bioengineering at Stanford, will assess how public sector investments and government regulations related to genetic engineering are legitimized in terms of their prospective economic benefits and national security tradeoffs.

“It’s the intersection of biology and technology and how one navigates public policy,” she said. “How do you think about the changing landscape of power and politics as it becomes increasingly easier to engineer biology? It poses all sorts of complex governance challenges.”

Teachers and Mentors

CISAC’s mission is also to teach and mentor the next generation of security scholars and the three fellows meet that mandate.

Eikenberry will co-lead CISAC’s annual undergraduate honors college in Washington, D.C., in which a dozen seniors meet with politicians, journalists, military analysts, lobbyists and experts from the leading private and government agencies in the nation’s capital. The former general will continue as a pre-major advisor for six undergraduates.

Brad Roberts

Roberts is also looking forward to getting back to an academic environment.

“The fellowship also enables me to return to a significant mentoring role with students, for which there was very little time in government,” he said.

Before joining the government in 2009, Roberts worked full-time at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Alexandria, Va., and served for 15 years as an adjunct professor in the graduate school of international studies at George Washington University. He has also mentored young analysts in the United States and abroad under the auspices of the Project on Nuclear Issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“In the nuclear policy community, I am part of a bridging generation – not a founding cold warrior but also not of the generation that has no memory of the Cold War – and I am enthusiastic for the opportunity to work with younger scholars to build expertise needed for the future,” Roberts said 

Palmer directs policy-related activities at Synberc site, a synthetic biology research consortium of UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco, Stanford, Harvard and MIT. She is also a judge for the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, where 200 undergraduate teams from around the world design and build living organisms over the course of a summer.

“Because biology is by nature globally distributed, it is critical to train the generation of practitioners to work together to develop best practices that can be diffused across organizations – and borders,” she said.