Getting scientists involved in arms control

By Malcolm Dando | April 22, 2008

Earlier this month Macedonian Amb. Georgi Avramchev addressed the “Second International Forum on Biosecurity” in Budapest and stressed the importance of including scientists and scientific organizations in the proceedings of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC). Delegations at BWC meetings have always included scientific experts, but Avramchev confirmed what many in attendance knew to be true, that scientists had not always been given the time or opportunity to contribute their expertise adequately. To remedy this, he said he was considering several ways to better involve scientists in BWC proceedings.

Avramchev was right to repeatedly stress the important role scientists and their organizations could play. And he was right to let scientists know that their engagement would be valued. Scientists have a great opportunity to influence the outcomes at these international meetings, and they should take full advantage of it.

The BWC’s meetings could lead to national legislation that impacts scientific work, so the more scientists get involved now, the more likely this legislation will reflect their preferences.”

In August and December of this year, the States Parties to the BWC will meet in Geneva to discuss biosafety, biosecurity, awareness-raising, education, oversight, and codes of conduct. The Budapest forum was held in part to prepare for those meetings. The forum, which included 80 people from the InterAcademy Panel, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the U.S. National Academies, and scientific societies in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and Australia heard plenary statements on topics related to the BWC and also broke up into separate sessions to consider a “culture of responsibility,” “research oversight,” and “scientific advising.” A summary report of the forum will be available on the website of the U.S. National Academies.

The presentation by Avramchev, who will chair the 2008 BWC meetings, was also noteworthy because it builds on efforts to adapt the role of the BWC. Since efforts to negotiate a verification protocol broke down and States Parties decided to put greater emphasis on more tractable subjects at the annual intersessional meetings that occur between Review Conferences, successive chairmen have moved to open up the proceedings of these meetings in Geneva. As a consequence, at the 2005 intersessional meetings on codes of conduct, the involvement of scientists markedly increased.

One of Avramchev’s suggestions is to launch a special session in the formal proceedings of the upcoming intersessional BWC meetings for experts to exchange views. He also plans to gather views from scientists and organizations that are not part of the formal States Parties delegation, and in Budapest, he welcomed suggestions from States Parties of scientists he could invite to address the meeting. Avramchev plans to continue allowing nongovernmental organizations to make statements during a designated slot in the agenda and wants to expand the number of side events on the schedule for the intersessional meetings. One suggestion under consideration is holding a poster session on the topics under discussion, where outside organizations could share and develop their ideas in a format similar to poster sessions at big scientific meetings.

The BWC’s meetings could lead to national legislation that impacts scientific work, so the more scientists get involved now, the more likely this legislation will reflect their preferences. Additionally, the more scientists engage in the deliberative process, the more space will be made for their contributions in the future. Effectively strengthening the BWC will increasingly require the expertise of life scientists in coming decades. I hope that scientists and scientific organizations take up the opportunities offered by Avramchev.

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