Building a culture of responsible science

By Malcolm Dando | December 22, 2008

Earlier this year, I wrote about preparations for the December 5th meeting between States Parties to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC). I warned that in addition to agreeing to a broad agenda, the States Parties needed to begin acting to make this agenda a reality.

Well, the BWC meeting was held, and the Informal Advanced Report of the Meeting of States Parties was made available shortly afterwards. As this draft of the report is unlikely to be substantially modified in the final/official document, it allows us to evaluate the consensus reached on crucial issues that may or may not lead scientists to help strengthen the prohibitions embodied in the BWC.

Will a good number of States Parties now start to generate the real energy and funding needed to strengthen the prohibition? Will we see foreign and defense ministries linking up with education and science ministries to “build a culture of responsibility”?

The report includes a range of standard statements that recognize the value of oversight, education, awareness raising, and adoption and/or development of codes of conduct. But it also offers some specific options that could lead to the successful implementation of these priorities. The section on scientific oversight recognizes the value of “developing national frameworks to prohibit and prevent the possibility of biological agents or toxins being used as weapons” and adds that these national frameworks could include “measures to oversee relevant people, materials, knowledge, and information, in the private and public sectors and throughout the scientific life cycle.” This section also acknowledges the “importance of balancing ‘top-down’ government or institutional controls with ‘bottom-up’ oversight by scientific establishments and scientists themselves.” These broad conceptions of oversight, which recognize the limits of certain tactics to ensure compliance, are welcome viewpoints.

In regard to awareness raising and education, the States Parties agree to “the importance of ensuring that those working in the biological sciences are aware of their obligations under the convention and relevant national legislation and guidelines.” To make this a reality, the report recommends implementing “formal requirements for seminars, modules or courses, including possible mandatory components, in relevant scientific and engineering training programs and continuing professional education” (emphasis added). As for codes of conduct, the States Parties agree to the “need to further develop strategies to encourage national stakeholders to voluntarily develop, adopt and promulgate codes of conduct.”

In sum the report’s broad agenda demonstrates how a series of effective actions could be undertaken on the basis of this year’s meetings. Given what we have seen since the black days of the Fifth BWC Review Conference in 2001, we can expect a variety of “bottom up” actions to be taken, for example by national academies and international scientific organizations, with the objective of promoting some of these desirable developments in the run up to the 2011 Review Conference. But that will not be enough to produce a significant strengthening of the prohibition. The question remains: What are States Parties going to do on the basis of these common understandings?

Will a good number of States Parties now start to generate the real energy and funding needed to strengthen the prohibition? Will we see, for example, States Parties further encourage the development, adoption, and promulgation of codes of conduct? Will we see foreign and defense ministries linking up with education and science ministries to address leading scientists and those with responsibility for the oversight of research as a route to “building a culture of responsibility”? And what balanced top-down governmental actions are we going to see developed for the oversight of science?

Scientists and scientific organizations would do well to encourage their governments continually to undertake new initiatives or build on existing ones. We have to be realistic and can’t expect to solve all of these problems immediately, but we can hope to see States Parties initiate a range of activities, such as developing and testing oversight systems; supporting a variety of educational initiatives; and introducing relevant codes of conduct. If scientists initiate these activities by the Seventh Review Conference, we will have a better chance of producing effective action than I fear will be the case if scientists leave following up the 2008 meetings to States Parties.

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