Chemists learn careless talk could cost lives

July 15, 2005

Days after the London bombings, Anna Fazackerley joins top chemists in a closed-door meeting on how to prevent academic know-how being used to turn the next attack into a chemical weapons massacre

It is nine o'clock on Sunday evening and 30 experts are battling on in a hot lecture theatre, debating issues that seem to have no obvious answer.

An Italian man in a smart suit holds his head in his hands, and other delegates are slumped in their seats. It has been a long day.

A high-level government expert is talking about the possibility of terrorists infiltrating international research meetings. "If a scientist from another country comes up and says, 'We're working on this, but how did you do so and so?', a scientist's natural inclination is to share his broad knowledge," he explains. "But he could be giving important information away without realising it. That is more difficult to control than equipment or chemical or biological materials."

It is a tough problem. No one wants to encourage scientists to mistrust their foreign counterparts at conferences, but as one delegate points out wryly, there might be an echo of the Second World War warning - careless talk costs lives.

The private invitation-only chemical weapons meeting at St Anne's College, Oxford, has been months in the planning but is given a new sense of urgency by the terrorist bomb attacks on London three days earlier. No chemicals were released in the explosions, but privately many of the experts admit that they feared a repeat of the sarin attacks on the Tokyo underground ten years ago when they first heard the news.

The delegates are mostly top-level chemists with considerable experience of chemical or biological weapons issues, who have come from as far afield as Iran, Australia, Russia and Ukraine. Some have experienced the effects of chemical weapons first hand; all are passionate about raising awareness about them among ordinary scientists in academe.

Peter Atkins, professor of chemistry at Lincoln College, Oxford, co-organised the meeting on behalf of the International Union for Pure and Applied Chemistry with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons based in The Hague. "There are great benefits to working in chemistry, but there are also responsibilities," he says. "The aim of this meeting was to find ways of helping people to become alert."

Opening the conference, Atkins throws down the gauntlet, admitting: "I don't have a clue about how to go forward, but that is why we are all here."

One thing on which everyone in the room agrees is that undergraduates and postgraduates can no longer remain oblivious to the possible misuses of science. Somehow the ethical issues must be insinuated into teaching - although Atkins observes that students' already packed courses leave little chance of more than an hour-long lecture session.

One option that goes down well in debate is that students should be given case studies on the potential dual uses of chemicals created with good intentions and asked to think through how they would react in certain situations, perhaps even designing their own code of behaviour. And it may not stop at university level - many of the delegates are keen for schoolteachers to introduce similar lessons to secondary school pupils. "If you are talking about phosphorous compounds, you mention sarin; if you are talking about sulphur, you discuss mustard gas," one expert comments. "It is about letting people know how close it is, and that scientists have to decide where to draw the line."

As with sex education, there is a risk that teaching students about these things might plant ideas in their minds or, more realistically, that it might show them that making a chemical weapon is easier than they thought.

But Alistair Hay, professor of environmental toxicology at Leeds University, argues that the benefit of having a very large group of people looking out for any potential misuse outweighs this risk.

He adds that the diligent researcher can already find worrying material about chemical weapons on the web, often from right-wing survivalist groups in the US. "There is a lot of literature out there," he says. "There is a poisoner's handbook, a manual on how to make chemical agents, a James Bond handbook, an Islamic terrorist handbook."

The chemistry in such manuals may not always be correct, but Hay believes that their existence means the problem of the potential misuse of chemical and biological research can no longer be ignored.

Of course, the issue of professional conduct is not only one for trainee scientists. The delegates have two and a half days to wrestle with the difficulty of convincing the academic community of a chemical weapons threat that it seems determined to ignore.

Atkins says: "The responsibilities of scientists are to some extent spelt out in the Chemical Weapons Convention, which is part of the law of the land but which people are simply not aware of."

Tony Bastock, chair of the UK's national authority on chemical weapons and the former head of the Chemical Industries Association, warns that a terrorist wanting to pursue clandestine research would be much more likely to choose to do it in a university than in a company.

"Most universities could produce chemical weapons," he says. "What a university has is the know-how. It is important to set standards for scientists to live by, but what we have got to get through to the academics running universities is that there is a policing job to be done."

Bastock knows all about policing. His company, Contract Chemicals, has just been through a rigorous four-day spot inspection undertaken by The Hague-based organisation responsible for this weekend's event. He says that universities, which make chemicals in much smaller amounts, would never face such a grilling.

Yet he thinks institutions should be aware that terrorists are getting more sophisticated and may not be planning large-scale chemical operations.

"They aren't looking for weapons of mass destruction, they are looking for weapons of terror. The sarin attack on the Tokyo underground caused mass disruption but not that many deaths," he says.

But several experts from different countries raise a new concern: even if this meeting eventually succeeds in opening the eyes of chemists and other scientists in universities, will they feel able to blow the whistle if they spot what they think is rogue science? Hay tells the room: "We rely on people coming forward and spilling the beans. But most then become unemployable as people don't trust them - they have proven that they don't follow the rules."

Hay has spent time with a group of chemists in South Africa who should have spoken out but did not. They were working for Wouter Basson, dubbed "Dr Death" by the press, the man who headed South Africa's apartheid-era germ warfare programme. They opened up to Hay about many unpalatable projects, including the manufacture of a vaccine intended to make black people infertile.

"It was apparent that there was nowhere in South Africa that these individuals could go if they had concerns," he says.

For this reason, Hay is one of several who argue for the need for an external organisation that can offer advice and protection to whistleblowers. A US adviser points out that such a body could also help the scientists she has come across who have realised that their research is moving in a dangerous direction but do not know who to tell.

Others are more wary. Edwin Becker, an emeritus professor at the National Institutes of Health in the US, says most scientists in universities should have someone they could report suspicious lab work to internally, without the need to take matters to an external ombudsman.

"The trouble with whistleblowers is that you can get disgruntled people who report someone. There may be nothing to it, but if the allegation has been made the scientist has to prove his innocence," he adds.

Nonetheless this is indisputably a universal issue. Delegates stress time and again the personal responsibility of ordinary researchers. Everyone should be aware of the problems that their work, or that of their colleagues, might one day throw up.

At the meeting, one group of experts considered ways of developing a code of conduct for chemists. The idea of a sort of Hippocratic oath for scientists has been doing the rounds for some time and has caused some anxiety among UK academics who already feel overburdened by bureaucracy and regulation and fear further government control of their work.

It was discussed extensively - and with much division - at a high-level international meeting on bacteriological and toxin weapons in Geneva last month. Bob Matthews, manager of the Australian Government's nuclear, biological and chemical arms control programme, who spoke at the Geneva meeting, reports that there is a realisation that the scientific community will have to be involved in developing any code to get them on board.

Matthews is pitching for a "layered approach", with all scientists signing up to a fairly general "aspirational" oath, and then scientific societies and academic institutions developing their own more detailed codes of practice beyond this. Penalties for breaking these codes could include sacking and prison sentences.

The experts at this meeting are realistic about the fact that a code of conduct will never prevent a person who wishes to do harm from doing so.

But the hope is that it could create a firmer ethical framework for research and enable scientists to recognise illegal or unethical work - as well as reassuring the public that research is being done responsibly.

Whether or not UK academics want one, some sort of code is looking increasingly likely.

Graham Pearson, who was for many years director-general of Porton Down, the UK government's chemical and biological defence establishment, reveals that the UK is further ahead on the issue than most people realise.

Sir David King, the Government's chief scientific adviser, told the Geneva meeting that he had set up a working group to consider the issue, and that a seven-point code called "Rigour, respect and responsibility" was already being trialled by government scientists and has been circulated to G8 and European colleagues.

Pearson recommends that the group respond to the Government's consultation on King's code but suggests that it is "a very attractive, simple set of principles".

Becker agrees that this sort of general oath is something no one should argue with. But while he is a strong believer in enforcing ethical responsibility, he says that it may be counterproductive to devise more detailed codes of practice stating exactly what chemists or bioscientists can or cannot do.

"We shouldn't write down things that could be misinterpreted," he says.

"For example, there has been some suggestion in the past that a code might include the principle of a respect for life. In general, that's fine. But think about it. Does that mean we shouldn't do animal research? When does life start? Does that mean we don't do research on embryos?

"You can imagine people, for various political reasons, taking these principles and using them to support a point. It could be very dangerous," he adds.

Such issues are likely to be debated long after this meeting. But despite the number of different cultural and political backgrounds represented in this lecture room, there is a remarkable unity. For the average bench scientists quietly getting on with their work, doing experiments and trying to get published in universities across the world, terrorism and chemical weapons may seem like another world - frightening but largely irrelevant.

While anxious not to paint chemistry as a dangerous sort of science, these international experts see such a position as anachronistic. Last week's terrorist attacks on London served as a horrible reminder that we are not invulnerable. Scientists have no option but to be vigilant.

AN ETHICS BLUEPRINT

"Rigour, respect and responsibility" - a seven-point "Hippocratic" oath for scientists - is being trailed by a working group of UK scientists

  • Act with skill and care in all scientific work. Maintain up-to-date skills and assist their development in others
  • Take steps to prevent corrupt practices and professional misconduct
  • Be alert to the ways in which research derives from and affects the work of other people, and respect the rights and reputations of others
  • Ensure that your work is lawful and justified
  • Minimise and justify any adverse effect your work may have on people, animals and the natural environment
  • Seek to discuss the issues that science raises for society. Listen to the aspirations and concerns of others.
  • Do not knowingly mislead, or allow others to be misled, about scientific matters. Present and review scientific evidence, theory or interpretation honestly and accurately.

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