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22/12/2014

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Spread information, not weapons

The public needs to know how new developments in chemistry, biology and even neuroscience could be used to create weaponry, says Malcolm Dando

The public needs to know how new developments in chemistry, biology and even neuroscience could be used to create weaponry, says Malcolm Dando.

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This April will see one of the regular conferences called to review the state of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which outlaws the production and use of chemical weapons.  However, developments in chemistry and biology increasingly are enabling people bent on harm to misuse knowledge to develop weapons. The public is largely unaware of these dangers, and it is important to engage people to consider them.

Flu pandemic

Last year saw a debate on dangers of biotechnology that did gain some public attention.  Researchers in the US and Holland genetically modified the deadly H5N1 influenza virus so that it could be passed between ferrets in a laboratory. Ferrets are mammals, and it was feared that the modified virus might be transmissible between humans as well, potentially threatening a deadly global pandemic.

The debate was about whether the research, showing how the virus had been modified, should be published or not.  On the one hand, it was argued that science demands the release of knowledge; on the other, that making the knowledge public might enable terrorists or others bent on harm to misuse it.  In the end, the research was published in full.

This incident illustrated the wider problem of the potential misuse of genetic engineering and synthetic biology. Moreover, a much wider range of the civil life sciences, for example neuroscience, could also be misused to develop novel weapons.

Mobilising the public

There is little chance to involve the public in these issues without the support of the scientific community. Work I and many colleagues have done with thousands of scientists in 16 different countries has made it very clear that few practising scientists are aware of these dangers, despite the fact that a number of reports by national academies have seriously addressed the problem.

A major reason for scientists’ ignorance is that the problem of misuse is rarely covered in their education.  Therefore our recent work has been devoted to helping to develop material to assist lecturers to remedy this. Our view is that, when more scientists understand the problem and take it seriously, they will be better prepared to help ensure that there is more awareness and involvement among the general public.

The problem is urgent because synthetic biology is opening up new ways of modifying pathogens, and more generally because the nature of war has changed.  We are less concerned with the huge force-on-force warfare of the last century and much more worried about what the British General Rupert Smith has called called 'wars amongst the people' such as the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In such situations it is possible that some of the combatants will see advantages in the use of chemical weapons, as is currently feared in Syria. 

Prohibited weapons

Fortunately, although chemical and biological weapons were developed and used during the last century, they never became commonly accepted and the development and use of both chemical and biological weapons is now totally prohibited by international agreements.

Despite such progress, the future of this prohibition regime is by no means assured.  There are dangers in the weaknesses of the Conventions governing the prohibitions, the changing nature of warfare, the rapid pace and scope of the advances in chemistry and biology, and the defensive responses of States to the dangers of proliferation (as these could be misunderstood as offensive preparations unless great care is taken).

We need to engage biologists, chemists and the public in thinking about this problem. Without that public concern, it is very unlikely that sufficient political attention will be focused on strengthening the chemical and biological prohibition regime and we will risk the growing misuse of modern chemistry and biology in the decades ahead.

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Malcolm Dando
Dando is Professor of International Security at the University of Bradford, and co-author of A Kelle, K Nixdorff and M R Dando (2012), Preventing a Biochemical Arms Race. Stanford: Stanford University Press
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