Research to be terror checked

September 9, 2005

Scientists will be expected to identify whether their work could be exploited by terrorists, under new guidelines set out by the leading funders of biomedical research in the UK.

The Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council issued advice to researchers this week, in response to public concerns that bioscience research could be misused in the development of bioweapons.

Following the bomb attacks on London in July, The Times Higher reported that scientists in universities across the country were unaware of potential terror threats resulting from their work.

Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the MRC, said: "Part of the process is to make sure grant holders are constantly monitoring the progress of their work and are aware of the need to inform funders if a potential problem is arising," he added.

Researchers will now be asked about any possible dual use of their work when they are applying for funding. Referees will also be expected to consider the issue when reviewing grant proposals.

But at this stage the funders have agreed to allow institutions to self-regulate. Researchers who are anxious about their research - or that of their colleagues - will be expected to approach their heads of department or other senior university figures.

Professor Blakemore stressed that it was necessary for the community to "put its house in order" before the Government decided to crack down with more authoritarian rules of its own. But he added: "We don't consider this to be the end of the exercise. We will continue to consult with the community and the Government. We are certainly prepared to go further if we need to."

Alastair Hay, professor of environmental toxicology at Leeds University, said: "There is a general recognition that science training and scientific advances present all sorts of opportunities for terrorists. The politicians have made it clear that they are looking for some action."

He added: "Probably a lot of heads of department won't have considered the issue. They should begin to ask themselves more searching questions."

Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, stressed that the guidelines would not hinder important science. He said: "There are many deadly infectious agents and it is vital for public health that the scientific community can pursue legitimate research to understand and treat these diseases."

Funding formula: risk versus benefit

* Proposal one: to genetically sequence the agent that causes plague, Yersinia pestis. Sequence data to be freely available on web.

Risk: knowledge could be misused by bioterrorists.

Benefits: Plague is still endemic and the sequence could accelerate research into controlling it. The sequence is basic knowledge and not harmful in itself.

Outcome: Benefits outweigh risk. Funded.

* Proposal Two: to clone and express the neurotoxin produced by Clostridium botulinum.

Risk: botulinum toxin is a poisonous agent that could be used to cause harm.

Benefits: characterising the toxin is crucial to understanding the disease.

Outcome: Funded.

Other unknown benefits have resulted, including cosmetic uses and a new tool for understanding nerve function.

* Proposal three: to investigate the potential use of botulinum and tetanus neurotoxins in therapeutic "warheads" targeting neuronal cells.

Risk: knowledge could be misused to generate powerful neurotoxins. Possible reputational risk to Wellcome Trust.

Benefits: overarching goal to benefit health. Potential for new techniques to treat neurological disorders.

Outcome: Neuroscience panel wanted to fund on basis of science quality, but raised concerns. Wellcome Trust's standing advisory group on ethics agreed it should be funded. Final approval given by board of governors.

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