Leader: Tough questions can't be dodged

July 15, 2005

Concern for academic freedom will be low down the list of priorities for the general public in determining universities' responsibilities in the face of an increased terrorist threat. It is fair to assume that most people will want institutions to be more vigilant in monitoring - and, if where necessary, reporting - the activities of their students, and more careful in the conduct of research that might have a sinister application.

But, just as Londoners have been praised for insisting on business as usual, those in universities will want to be assured that the foundations of academic life are not undermined in a vain quest for greater security.

Universities will find themselves under intense scrutiny in the days to come as more detail emerges about the backgrounds of last week's suspected bombers. The bond of trust between student and academic will be under greater strain, and there will be pressure to strengthen the guidance given to institutions by their national bodies and the procedures for reporting concerns to outside agencies. Universities must balance their responsibilities to their local communities with concern for the civil liberties of students and staff.

But the delicate nature of that exercise is as nothing compared to the difficulty of reconciling the conflicting pressures over potentially dangerous research. Where can any line be drawn between universities'

essential freedom of inquiry, the unstoppable march of scientific progress and a duty to protect the public? Thirty international experts in the field reached no firm conclusions at Oxford University last weekend. That is because there are no universally applicable, let alone easy, answers. Today's research on a cure for an infectious disease could be tomorrow's chemical weapon; to warn against the possible uses of a particular compound may be to provide an instruction manual for an unsuspected terrorist.

An ethical code for scientists may be a useful starting point, but it will not deter a terrorist. Academics' role in reducing the risk of future attacks will lie in individual vigilance and a willingness to share well-grounded suspicions with university authorities - and, by extension, the security services. What no one can get away with if they want to preserve time-honoured academic freedoms is a head-in-the clouds insistence that scientists bear no responsibility for the uses to which their research is put. The real world demands a willingness to address the problem, however intractable.

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