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The misuse of research – join the debate

Posted by on June 20, 2013

Malcolm Dando, Society of Biology policy lates debateMalcolm Dando (right), Professor of International Security at the University of Bradford, is Chair of our upcoming Policy Lates debate on research which has the potential to be misuse.

People can come to a discussion on the problem of dual-use scientific work with very different perspectives. So there is good reason to expect a lively debate on this issue. For example, some scientists will be concerned about a threat to scientific freedom of enquiry, whereas some people will worry about research that could lead inadvertently to a worldwide pandemic. Others of us may see grappling with this problem as part of our evolving understanding of the responsible conduct of scientific research, or as part of the necessary in-depth implementation of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention.

There is no doubt, however, that the international debate on dual-use has been dominated by a perspective that has developed in the United States over the possibility that terrorists could misuse benignly-intended life science research for very dangerous attacks on civilian targets. Two influential US National Academy reports have been particularly important in this regard.

A committee chaired by Gerald Fink reported under the title of Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism in 2004 and suggested that at least seven classes of experiment would require review in relation to biosecurity. These included, for example, experiments that would enhance the virulence of a pathogen, or increase the transmissibility of a pathogen, or alter the host range of a pathogen.

Then a follow-on committee, chaired by Stanley Lemon and David Relman, reported in 2006 under the title Globalization, Biosecurity, and the Future of the Life Sciences and recommended in part that it was necessary to “Adopt a broadened awareness of threats beyond the classical ‘select agents’ and other pathogenic organisms and toxins, so as to include, for example, approaches for disrupting host homeostatic and defence systems and for creating synthetic organisms”. In short, the report argued that the problem of dual-use is pervasive throughout the life and associated sciences.

As a public discussion has evolved about a series of experiments – from mousepox to mammalian-transmissible highly pathogenic H4N1 influenza – governments have become increasingly involved and the US Government has defined dual-use research of concern as:

“Research that, based on current understanding, can be reasonably anticipated to provide knowledge, products, or technologies that could be directly misapplied by others to pose a threat to public health and safety, agricultural crops and other plants, animals, and the environment, or materiel.”

Another reason to expect a lively debate on dual-use is that reasonable people could disagree on whether any particular experiment would fit into that definition. However, one thing is clear: scientists cannot ignore this discussion they have to bring their expertise to bear on a public debate that is unlikely to go away any time soon.

You can join the debate in person, or follow it on Twitter using the hashtag #policylates.


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