Science blasé on terror

July 15, 2005

Scientists in the UK are failing to consider potential terror threats resulting from their work and dismissing warnings about bio-weapons, new research reveals.

Group interviews with more than 600 life scientists from 26 universities, presented at a closed meeting of international chemical weapons experts at Oxford University last weekend, indicated that the majority of academics believe that terrorism is not their problem and research should not be restricted because of potential misuse.

Such a stance is controversial in light of the London bombings last week.

While no biological or chemical weapons were used in the attacks, some experts predict that it is only a matter of time until terrorists employ them.

Brian Rappert, a sociologist from Exeter University who conducted the interviews, said: "Research into infectious disease should prompt security questions. Could that information become useful in spreading disease?"

Dr Rappert, who collaborated with Malcolm Dando from Bradford University's department of peace studies, said that many scientists were insulted to be asked about bioterrorism. Focus groups suggested that the "classic" scientist type saw little indication of threat from bioterrorism and biological weapons, and did not feel that life sciences developments contributed to increased risks.

Dr Rappert said such responses ignored contentious research such as the first chemical synthesis of poliovirus, which was published in 2002.

Although poliovirus is unlikely to be used as a biological weapon, viruses such as Ebola could in theory be manufactured using the same technique.

One scientist, horrified at the suggestion that research could have a dual use, said: "You're damning technology just because it may be possible to use it to make Ebola in three or four years."

Julia Higgins, vice-president of the Royal Society, said: "These findings illustrate why there is such a need for the training and awareness-raising that the Royal Society is advocating."

She added: "Rather than anything too heavy-handed, we believe that extensions of the current systems for applying for funding, assessing risk and getting published in a scientific journal can effectively minimise the potential risks."

But chemical weapons experts at last weekend's meeting suggested that the Government was moving to tighten ethical standards in science.

Government chief scientific adviser Sir David King has begun trialling a seven-point code of conduct for all scientists - an extra layer of bureaucracy that is likely to spark resentment in the science community.

The code, a "Hippocratic oath" for scientists, stresses "rigour, respect and responsibility".

anna.fazackerley@thes.co.uk  

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