Student vetting reviewed

April 18, 2003

The Cabinet Office is reviewing the voluntary vetting scheme designed to ensure that countries developing weapons of mass destruction cannot use UK universities to train key scientists.

In a letter to Universities UK, Foreign Office minister Mike O'Brien says:

"A formal review of the scheme is being undertaken by the Cabinet Office to address issues such as the advisability of legislation and whether or not any scheme of this sort should be extended outside educational establishments into commercial and medical research."

Under the scheme, universities seek government advice on whether to admit students from "countries of concern" onto certain scientific research programmes. The final decision rests with the university.

A spokesperson for UUK said: "The scheme should remain voluntary. It is important to maintain academic autonomy."

Last December, in a report on the government's green paper on biological weapons, the House of Commons foreign affairs committee advocated a compulsory vetting system to prevent terrorist infiltration. MPs also called for a central authority responsible for the control of dangerous pathogens in universities and for commercial and medical research.

In his letter, Mr O'Brien outlined problems with the voluntary vetting scheme. "I acknowledge that the voluntary nature of the scheme creates problems for some universities. Those universities and colleges that participate can sometimes see their lucrative overseas students apply elsewhere and possibly be offered places by establishments that do not take part." The solution lay in greater participation, according to Mr O'Brien.

MPs said that it was unacceptable that only 70 per cent of institutions in the "medium-concern category" and 85 per cent in the "low-concern category" had agreed to refer applications for vetting. Some 95 universities and other research institutions support the scheme.

The scheme was set up in 1994 and, although its voluntary nature has been questioned in subsequent reviews, it has continued on that basis.

* Medical journals overemphasise the risk of bioterrorism and inadvertently played an important role in providing political justification for attacking Iraq, according to a letter in the British Medical Journal .

Ian Roberts, professor of epidemiology and public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, compared the number of articles on bioterrorism in five major medical journals between 1991 and 2002 with the number of articles published on road traffic accidents.

Articles on bioterrorism outnumbered articles on road traffic crashes in 2001 and 2002. He says that compared with road accidents, which kill 3,000 people and disable about 30,000 worldwide each day, the public health importance of bioterrorism has been overemphasised.

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