11/01/2011 - 20:10

Educating the life scientists

Malcolm Dando

Malcolm Dando

A biologist, Dando researches international security at the University of Bradford's Department of Peace Studies. His expertise is...

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There are increasing signs that state parties to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) realize that the lack of biosecurity awareness and education among life scientists represents a serious gap in the overall web of policies designed to prevent bioterrorism and biowarfare. Without such awareness and education, how can practicing life scientists contribute their expertise to the development and implementation of oversight systems and codes of conduct necessary to protect benignly intended work from hostile misuse? Advances in genetic engineering and biotechnology can improve the world we live in through new medicines and agriculture -- but they also pose serious risks. The threats from bioterrorism and biological weapons are very real, as experimenting life scientists could unwittingly create bio-weapons with unusual and unpredictable traits -- or their work could simply fall into the wrong hands.

That's why in its paper presented to the BWC Preparatory Committee for the 2011 review conference, the JACKSNNZ (Japan, Australia, Canada, Korea, Switzerland, Norway, and New Zealand) states (along with Sweden) declared, "The frequent lack of awareness of aspects related to biosecurity and the obligations of the Convention amongst life scientists has to be addressed more urgently, strategically, and comprehensively." The paper went on to list the points agreed to be of value from the 2008 meeting of state parties. These included education and awareness initiatives, such as:

• Explaining the risks associated with the potential misuse of biological sciences and biotechnology.

• Covering the moral and ethical obligations of the convention -- incumbent on those using the biological sciences.

• Providing guidance on the types of activities that could be contrary to the aims of the convention as well as relevant national laws, regulations, and international law.

The paper also argued that, in order to quickly develop best practices, state parties undertaking awareness and educational activities should inform other state parties of their efforts when they made their annual confidence-building measure returns. In a working paper -- "Review and Update of the Confidence Building Measures" -- for the Seventh BWC Review Conference, Norway, Switzerland, and Germany have now made explicit proposals for the inclusion of such reporting.

State parties need to take action to improve the education and awareness of life scientists at the review conference, but in a time of global austerity what can they realistically afford to do? Is it possible to make a significant change in the culture of life scientists without spending large amounts of money? It is. For example:

• To explain the risks associated with the potential misuse of the biological sciences and biotechnology, governments could send a message to their university heads delineating the risks and asking them to circulate the information to all life- and associated-sciences departments in order to incorporate such information into their teaching.

• A similar letter could also be sent to philosophy departments around the world so that they might consider an ethical approach to biosecurity in cooperation with life-science departments. No doubt some university and department heads would not recognize the problem or take effective action, but many would -- and that's an enormously important first step both toward eliminating the dangers within life-sciences departments today and teaching the next generation about the risks as well. Meanwhile, the costs to the government would be negligible.

• Also at minimal cost, governments could provide life scientists with guidance on the types of activities that could be contrary to the aims of the convention by issuing a short statement emphasizing the importance of national laws, regulations, and international laws -- and how such statutes are vital to minimizing the threat of bioterrorism or biowarfare.

• Of course, many governments will hopefully go beyond issuing formal statements and letters, and actually allocate funds devoted to improving their life scientists' biosecurity education. In 2008, BWC state parties agreed on the value of "accessible teaching materials, train-the-trainer programmes, seminars, workshops, publications, and audio-visual materials." State parties might therefore encourage national grant-giving agencies to develop funding streams to address biosecurity awareness. Governments themselves could also provide funding for such purposes -- at least for pilot studies that could lead to still larger grants.

• In 2008, state parties also agreed on the value of "addressing leading scientists … with the aim of building a culture of responsibility." To create this culture, governments should start convening meetings with leaders at professional associations, industry, academia, and the media as well as enlisting the support of top scientists to plan further improvements to the education of life scientists. Moreover, BWC state parties agreed to ensure their own expertise was being "integrated into existing efforts at the international, regional and national levels." To this end, governments should consider promoting an integration of resources and minds with a special commission operating at the national level.

There is a great deal that can be done with relatively little cost, but any expenditure in this economy must lead to effective impacts. In short, what measures can be used to judge whether anything useful is being achieved in the effort to promote biosecurity awareness and education? Asking a few simple questions will help:

• Can a scientist spot an experiment of real dual-use concern in his or her own area of research?

• Does the institution have a mechanism in place so that a scientist who does have such a concern would know how to address it or bring it to the attention of higher management?

• Do scientists have a reasonable grasp of the national and international laws relating to biosecurity?

• Do these scientists and their professional associations follow developments in such laws and regulations?

• Do they effectively communicate them to peers so that their expertise can be engaged productively?

Much can be done to improve the biosecurity awareness and education of life scientists at a relatively low cost if state parties simply decide to do so. However, if state parties do not take these basic but necessary steps at the December review conference this year, it is unlikely that anything will be done until the next review in 2016 -- and who knows what new and unpredictable biological materials the revolution in the life sciences will produce by then?