'Tighten biotech control'

December 13, 2002

The government must strengthen its control over biotechnological research in UK universities to reduce the threat from biological weapons, according to MPs.

In a report on the government's green paper on biological weapons, the House of Commons foreign affairs committee advocates a compulsory vetting system to prevent terrorist infiltration.

The report, published on Wednesday, says: "Our anxiety is that a fully qualified research scientist who, unknown to the authorities, was a supporter of a terrorist group, could be admitted to a postgraduate or other research institution within the UK to pursue an approved programme of research. Such a scientist could thus gain unhindered access to dangerous materials."

Julian Perry Robinson, professorial fellow for science and technology policy research at Sussex University, told the committee that the "upsurge" in biotechnological developments had "maleficent as well as beneficent potential".

He warned that this duality lay at the heart of the problem.

MPs also heard from Tim Dowse, head of the non-proliferation department at the Foreign Office, that terrorist groups, including al-Qaida, had tried to acquire chemical and biological weapons.

Mr Dowse said that academic institutions whose research was considered to be "of highest concern" participated in a voluntary vetting scheme. This was set up by the Foreign Office to check the credentials of postgraduate students from "countries of concern" applying to carry out research in a range of scientific and technical disciplines.

But he said that only 70 per cent of institutions in the "medium concern" category and 85 per cent in the "low category" had agreed to refer applications for vetting.

The report says this is wholly unsatisfactory.

"Apart from the security implications, it would appear very unfair, in such a competitive and income-generating environment, to those institutions that do collaborate fully as against those who do not," it says.

While Labour MP Andrew Mackinlay said academic freedom was important, he observed: "All of us post-September 11 have had some of our freedoms narrowed. We find it is a price we have to pay."

The report calls for the establishment of a central authority responsible for the control of dangerous pathogens. It recommends that the government push for an international code for the conduct of scientists working with such materials.

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