Brussels, 20 Apr 2004
The UK's Royal Society told a United Nations (UN) meeting in Washington on 19 April that proposals for scientific research should be vetted in order to prevent harmful applications such as the development of biological weapons.
The meeting was organised to examine the role of the UN in responding to threats to international security from biological agents. In a paper presented to participants, the Royal Society called on industrial and government sponsors of research to take steps to filter out proposals 'where there is a tangible cause for concern in terms of harmful applications.'
However, the same paper also warns against a vetting process for basic research that may have potential dual uses, both beneficial and harmful, because such a move would be difficult, and would 'impose a burdensome layer of bureaucracy on the research enterprise.'
Professor Brian Eyre, chair of the Royal Society committee on scientific aspects of international security, told the meeting: 'The enormous expansion in the life sciences, coupled with the concerns about the potential for developing biological weapons capable of causing major societal damage and chaos, has stimulated discussions on the need for more rigorous regulation to filter out research that could lead to such weapons.'
'There is a need for the scientific community, governments and relevant agencies to be fully aware of the potential of scientific advances both in enabling the illegal development of more lethal weapons and in developing more effective counter measures to the use of such weapons,' Professor Eyre added.
The Royal Society used the meeting to call for the formation of an international scientific advisory panel that would help to ensure that the implementation of the Biological Weapons Convention keeps pace with technological advances in the life sciences.
The paper also suggested that national and international laws against biological weapons need to be strengthened, and that consideration should be given as to how such laws could be developed into 'an enforceable code of practice'.
Returning to the question of how best to balance the benefits and threats presented by basic research into potentially harmful technologies, the Royal Society pointed out that the impact of a recent statement by leading scientific journals on the need to identify research papers where the potential harm of publication outweighs the potential benefits, would depend entirely on the judgement of editors and their referees.
According to Professor Eyre, it is the research community that must exercise judgement in the publication of their work, which, in turn, highlights the need to raise awareness among scientists about the ethical and legal requirements relating to their work.
'Scientists [...] need to be aware of the potential misuse of science and of their responsibilities in meeting the requirements of international treaties and conventions aimed at preventing the proliferation and use of chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons,' Professor Eyre concluded. To read the Royal Society paper on the role scientists can play in strengthening international treaties, please: click here