Raising life scientists’ awareness

By Malcolm Dando | June 9, 2008

In April 1980, the Bulletin published an article by former intelligence analyst Henry T. Nash titled “The Bureaucratization of Homicide.” (The article was subsequently reprinted in E. P. Thompson’s Protest and Survive.) In the article, Nash reflected on his experiences as a nuclear targeting planner in the U.S. Defense Department during the 1950s and 1960s, and he concludes by discussing social critic Hannah Arendt’s report from Nazi conspirator Adolf Eichman’s 1961 trial, Eichman in Jerusalem. In particular, Nash is struck by the lack of “self-examination” on the part of Eichman and his Nazi peers and compares this state with that of those in charge of the U.S. nuclear planning system: “To the extent that critical self-examination does not occur, the individuals comprising the [U.S. nuclear] bureaucracy are abandoning . . . the activity of thinking. Many of the tragedies of the past are attributable less to evil or stupidity of man than to his thoughtlessness.”

This conclusion comes to mind as I think about the forthcoming meetings of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC), one at the expert level in August and another at the State Party level in December. One of the topics for these meetings is to be: “Oversight, education, awareness raising and adoption and/or development of codes of conduct with the aim of preventing misuse in the context of advances in bio-science and bio-technology research with the potential of use for purposes prohibited by the Convention.”

It’s reasonable to argue that even in considering the difficult circumstances that Soviet bioweapons scientists confronted, the appropriate awareness, education, and codes of conduct could have helped to support those who did not want to take part.”

First-person accounts and other historical research confirm that there were a series of major state-level offensive biological weapons programs during the last century in which life scientists were involved in working out how best to use biological agents for mass murder. If recent official statements are to be believed, there is every reason to think that life scientists in several countries are doing similar work today. Moreover the materials, technologies, and knowledge that are being generated in the ongoing revolution in the life sciences could also be misused by those with hostile intentions.

It is presumably for such reasons that the States Parties to the BWC as long ago as the 1986 Second Review Conference agreed on the importance of the “inclusion in textbooks and in medical, scientific and military educational programmes of information dealing with the prohibition of bacteriological (biological) and toxin weapons and the provisions of the Geneva Protocol.” Similar statements aspiring to generate an informed life science community also appear in the consensus Final Declarations of the 1991 Third Review Conference, the 1996 Fourth Review Conference, and the 2006 Sixth Review Conference.

Yet, despite these oft-repeated aspirations, an Australian working paper initially prepared for the 2005 BWC inter-sessional meeting on codes of conduct reported, “Amongst the Australian scientific community, there is a low level of awareness of the risk of misuse of the biological sciences to assist in the development of biological or chemical weapons. Many scientists working in ‘dual-use’ areas simply do not consider the possibility that their work could inadvertently assist in a biological or chemical weapons programme.” From the 90 interactive seminars that University of Exeter social scientist Brian Rappert and I have carried out with some 2,500 life scientists across Europe, South and North America, and Asia, it is quite clear that Australia is not alone in this regard. Very few practicing life scientists have given any thought to the potential dual-use implications of their well-intentioned work.

Such a lack of awareness can have important implications. For example, in Biowarrior (2003), Igor V. Domaradskij’s account of the huge Soviet bioweapons program, the author recounts how some scientists did not take part in the program even knowing that it would cost them their research careers. Other scientists did civilian work not realizing that their work was going to be misused in the offensive program, and still others participated in the offensive program but chose to concentrate on the interesting biology rather than worry about their work’s implications. Finally, some scientists, such as Domaradskij, ended up actively participating in the offensive program with the full knowledge of what they were doing.

It is reasonable to argue that even in considering the difficult circumstances that Soviet scientists confronted, the appropriate awareness, education, and codes of conduct could have helped to support those who did not want to take part, to inform those who did not realize the implications of their work, to dissuade those involved who did not wish to think about what they were doing, and to deter those actively directing the offensive work. As Nash noted, much tragedy arises from thoughtlessness rather than evil.

This is why the BWC meetings in Geneva this year are so important. Somehow the experts associated with the BWC and the States Parties need to develop an effective means of raising the awareness of practicing life scientists so as to engage them in the building of oversight mechanisms, codes of conduct, and educational courses, where these are appropriate, to help protect their work from hostile misuse. Given the increasing technical complexity of the work being done in the life sciences, this task cannot be left to others.

A good first step would be if life scientists investigate whether their professional organizations will be represented in Geneva in August and December and, if represented, whether they will be making a statement on the issues under discussion. If an organization, and subsequently its membership, will not be represented, then scientists need to discuss how to put these issues on their organizations’ agenda during the coming years when the possibilities for the misuse of the life sciences will certainly increase.

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