09 June 2005
Global cooperation on measures to prevent the misuse of scientific research is needed to ensure that misguided scientists cannot simply move to another country to carry out unsafe work, the Royal Society said today (Thursday 9 June 2005) ahead of the 2005 Meeting of Experts of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.
The theme of the meeting, which runs from 13 - 20 June, is codes of conduct for scientists and the Society will make a presentation on the roles of codes of conduct in preventing the misuse of scientific research. The papers examine what measures will be most effective in minimising the risk of the misuse of research with potentially harmful applications, while ensuring that beneficial research is not hindered. The papers are 'The roles of codes of conduct in preventing the misuse of scientific research' and 'Issues for discussion'.
Professor Julia Higgins, Foreign Secretary and Vice President of the Royal Society, said: "At the national level we envisage that, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, the extension of current UK health and safety regulations will be one of the most effective ways to target specific areas of concern. However, we need global cooperation to harmonise regulations between different countries. Minimum levels of safety regulation should be established to prevent a misguided scientist from carrying out unsafe research simply by moving to a different country."
"We need to be able to assess individual pieces of research to say whether the potential benefits outweigh the potential risks and, in the rare cases it is needed, what action to take. Our report identifies three key stages for doing this."
Professor Higgins continued: "When a scientist applies to a funding agency for money to carry out research the agency should be prepared to reject a proposal, if the potential risks seem greater than the potential benefits. Then there will be local, and possibly national, risk assessment before an experiment can take place. Finally, when a scientist submits a paper to a journal for publication, the referees and editors should consider whether the results have destructive uses and whether, in extreme circumstances, this means the paper should be amended or rejected. The degree to which these measures are carried out at present varies greatly between organisations, so the aim is to develop a consistently higher standards overall."
"Creating a code of conduct for scientists means different things to different people. The Royal Society believes that any code needs to be a continuous commitment to remain vigilant throughout a scientist's working life as opposed to simply signing a document when starting a job and then forgetting about it. More detailed codes, for specific areas of research, have clearer benefits than sets of guiding principles to underpin all scientific work which invariably end up bland and generic. For this reason, making considerations of potential for misuse integral to the funding, safety assessment and publication of individual areas of research is the best way to ensure that a code has practical benefits."
Professor Higgins continued: "More generally, codes of conduct help to raise awareness and foster discussion on the potential for misuse of life science research. The process of defining a code, including extensive consultation with target groups to ensure it is workable, should also increase the number of individuals who are aware that there are areas of concern. They also have an important role in training and education so that scientists are reminded of their legal and ethical responsibilities and consider the potential consequences of their research."
Professor Higgins added: "At this stage, setting up codes is primarily a precautionary measure. There are very few examples of where potentially harmful research results have made it into the public domain. However, science is moving rapidly in many relevant areas, so putting safeguards in place now will help to protect us in the future."