Bringing a “culture of responsibility” to life scientists

By Malcolm Dando | December 18, 2009

In a 2005 essay entitled “Biomedical Research and Biosecurity,” Robert Steinbrook, the national correspondent of the New England Journal of Medicine, concluded, “Establishing biosecurity policies for biomedical research without obstructing scientific progress or disrupting the usual procedures for scientific communication is a complex matter.” Indeed it is–and has been.

In the 1940s, U.S. scientist Arthur Galston discovered that synthetic chemicals could be used both to hasten the flowering of plants and, in higher quantities, to cause the leaves to fall off. Two decades later Galston learned that his original work was being used as the basis for massive defoliation operations–via Agent Orange–in Vietnam. He quickly came out in opposition to this use of his research findings. “I used to think,” Galston said, “that one could avoid involvement in the anti-social consequences of science simply by not working on any project that might be turned to evil or destructive ends. I have learned that things are not that simple. . . . The only recourse is for a scientist to remain involved with it to the end.”

The culture of responsibility has not yet come to include consideration of, and training about, the problem of dual use.”

Thus, we see that the dual-use dilemma isn’t a new issue for life scientists. Yet, as Steinbrook pointed out, “it is far easier to describe the challenges than to resolve them.” So what can be done?

In recent years, the suggested solution to the dual-use dilemma has been to develop a “culture of responsibility.” Even as the States Parties to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) at the 2008 Intersessional Meeting recognized, one benefit from education and awareness-raising programs is to address “leading scientists and those responsible for oversight of research or for evaluation of projects or publications at a senior level, as well as future generations of scientists, with the aim of building a culture of responsibility” (emphasis added).

For many scientists, I suspect, a culture of responsibility equates to the Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR), an initiative undertaken by the U.S. Office of Research Integrity. RCR addresses potential conflicts of interest, the legal aspects of human-subject research, best practices for collaborative science, and a range of other traditional scientific responsibilities. Although not mandatory, The Lancet pointed out, “[T]he ORI has pushed for RCR training at the institutional level since the 1980s.” But can we ascertain how the culture of responsibility should cover dual-use within RCR teaching?

The Office of Research Integrity published a revised edition of its Introduction to the Responsible Conduct of Research, beginning with a discussion of scientific and research misconduct before dealing with the issues that arise in research activity: planning research, conducting research, and reporting and reviewing research. Throughout, it stressed the need for honesty, accuracy, efficiency, and objectivity. However, it doesn’t address in any substantial way what type of dual-use training would be appropriate in coordination with these other aspects.

More recently, the National Academies of Science Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy produced the third edition of On Being a Scientist: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in Research. Like the Office of Research Integrity publication, the National Academies dealt with scientific best practices through a series of chapters on ethical issues that may arise in research. These chapters–for example on the treatment of data, mistakes and negligence, laboratory safety, and intellectual property–are succinct and accompanied by excellent illustrative case studies. The chapter entitled “The Researcher in Society” makes it clear that “the standards of science extend beyond responsibilities that are internal to the scientific community. Researchers also have a responsibility to reflect on how their work and the knowledge they are generating might be used in the broader society.” But neither the Office of Research Integrity nor the National Academies seems to give much attention, apart from the Agent Orange case study outlined above, to the potential for scientific research to be used for malign means or how this risk can be taught.

A third leading scientific institution that is well positioned to address the challenges of dual-use research is the British Royal Society. In a December New Scientist interview, Martin Rees, president of the institution and a member of the Bulletin’s Board of Sponsors, was asked what the Royal Society’s role in the world was today. Not surprisingly Rees said its role was to speak up for science and the importance of science to Britain. But, he added, “[W]e also want to address, with the best expertise we can muster, the key problems facing the world.” Thus, the rational for engaging the Royal Society, the U.S. National Academies, and similar organizations in efforts to support the protection of the life sciences from hostile misuse is clear.

What we can conclude, however, is that, in fact, the culture of responsibility has not yet come to include consideration of, and training about, the problem of dual use. And so I am left wondering what the authors of the very recent National Academies report “Responsible Research with Biological Select Agents and Toxins,” had in mind when they recommended that “personnel with access to select agents and toxins should receive training in scientific ethics and dual-use research. Training should be designed to foster community responsibility.” After all, the question still remains: What specifically are scientists to be taught? Have we gotten any further in deciding what to do about dual use than we were in 2005? I’m not sure that we have, but I think help may be on the way as states are beginning to come to grips with this problem.

Last month, Washington released the “National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats.” Its second objective is to “reinforce norms of safe and responsible conduct” by undertaking activities that “reinforce a culture of responsibility, awareness, and vigilance.” Toward that end, it envisions “assisting professional societies and other representatives of the life science community in the development of relevant educational and training materials.” Perhaps by 2011, when the Seventh Review Conference of the BWC is scheduled to take place, this strategy will have been implemented and will have demonstrated how the RCR can be extended to include coverage of dual-use and related biosecurity issues. With luck then, similar methods can be quickly developed by other states around the world toward the same goal.

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