Academic scientists have a vital role in tackling the threat from biological weapons, according to leading UK scientists in the Royal Society. They called for a universal set of standards for research to prevent knowledge falling into the wrong hands, with governments guaranteeing the compliance of the scientists in their countries.
Ministers of state from around the world will meet in Geneva next week in a final attempt to agree an implementation protocol for the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, first signed in 1972.
The US was blamed for the meeting being abandoned last year. The aim had been to set up a procedure similar to that for chemical weapons inspections.
In a submission to the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office before the meeting, the RS said: "It is extremely difficult to oversee such research so as to encourage the free international exchange of ideas and their ethical application, while at the same time discouraging maleficent work."
But it also stressed the need to find ways for researchers to report or discuss work that they were uncomfortable with because of its possible application to the development of biological weapons.
Dame Julia Higgins, vice-president and foreign secretary of the RS, said:
"While it is broadly agreed that researchers in the UK do follow accepted codes of conduct, for example to ensure safe laboratory practice, these do not necessarily extend to thinking about the broader ethical implications of their work. There is considerable ignorance of agreements such as the BWC among UK researchers."
Writing this week in American journal Science, Robert May, president of the RS, and his US equivalent, Bruce Albert, of the National Academy of Science, said: "Every researcher, whether in academia, in government research facilities, or in industry, needs to be aware of the potential unintended consequences of their own and their colleagues' research."
* The RS has warned UK academics of a suspected bogus body calling itself the European Academy of Sciences. Some scientists have received letters announcing that they have been elected members of the EAS and requesting payment of a subscription fee.