Project duration: March 2002–September 2003
Project researchers: Brian Rappert and Malcolm Dando

After the events of 11 September 2001, countries around the world have had to reassess their security preparedness. In relation to chemical and biological weapons, the immediate response in Western countries has been geared towards countering imminent dangers of established weapons. However, as research in genetics and the life sciences proceeds, the threat is raised that new forms of bioengineered weapons could be produced that either augment or replace existing capabilities.

The principal objective of this project was to assess how individuals and organisations in the biological and medical sciences addressed the shared problem of responding to the growing societal concern with the proliferation of weapons-related expertise. A number of more specific key questions underpinned it:

  • How might current and future bioscience research facilitate the development of new forms of biological weapons?
  • What possibilities did bioscience researchers perceive in the development of genetic bioweapons?
  • What was the range of advocacy activities undertaken by professional organisations and others in the UK and elsewhere to alert scientists and members of the public regarding the dangers of genetic weapons?

This project found significant reason for concern regarding the potential for current civilian bioscience research to facilitate the development of novel forms of bioweapons. Through a review of scientific and medical literature, the grant holders identified the role of bioregulators -- chemicals produced by living organisms that have regulatory effects on life processes -- in the central nervous system as a particular area of concern. The tremendous advances in neuroscience, linked to the whole biotechnology revolution, are providing the opportunity to make major strides in the understanding of the central nervous system, and thus in our ability to treat mental illnesses. However, such beneficial advances may also enable both the more effective targeting of the central nervous system and the ability to achieve specific types of effects. The situation is particularly worrying because the grant holders were able to document the current US government interest in evaluating so-called incapacitating chemical/biological agents – e.g., toxins, peptides, and cell signalling molecules – for altering body temperature, mood and hormone release.

Despite the technical possibilities mentioned above, as of yet, there is limited acknowledgement or discussion in scientific and policy communities regarding the possible long term implications of modern bioresearch. Interviews conducted with practising scientists investigating one type of brain receptor identified as an area of concern (i.e., muscarinic receptors) would suggest that recognition of the possible implications of civilian research is not widespread. While many scientists and policy makers shared an assessment of the abhorrence of biological weapons, just what this should imply vis-à-vis research controls was not a matter of agreement. Determinations about controls involve much interpretative work wherein the identity of would-be users, the nature of scientific research, the bounds of technical expertise, and the public or private status of knowledge were negotiated. Alternative characterisations and definitions of these matters entailed alternative ways of distributing social and professional responsibility for minimizing the threats associated with bioweapons. The extent of negotiation and interpretation over appropriate conduct would suggest that attempts to strengthen the international norm against the use of biological research for the development of weaponry requires more than just gaining abstract agreement about this principle. Rather, attempts to foster the norm should be treated as practical activity wherein the meaning of norms, definitions of the identity of individuals, and the context of research must be negotiated and practically secured.

Much of the recent UK public policy response to anticipated threats associated with bioweapons has focused on concerns about the physical control of pathogens and, to a lesser extent, those handling such material. The relatively stringent state of British health and safety provisions in place for the handling and protection of dangerous pathogens and toxins in relation to biosafety have been taken by many as largely sufficient to address biosecurity concerns associated with bioscience research. The work undertaken as part of this project would suggest that such measures, while important, are not adequate to address the range of considerations associated future possibilities.

In considering policy options, the continuing developments in modern biology pose significant questions regarding how research might facilitate the hostile use of biological agents. Yet, all the available evidence suggests that it is very difficult to cause mass casualties with biological agents. Whilst it may be possible decades into the future for some individuals or groups to threaten society with a mass casualty agent, it is not a likely possibility today. From the understanding formed through this project, the current threat from biological weapons in general is limited. However, that threat is likely to increase, both through the spread of technological capabilities and the development of greater technological capabilities. Policy options therefore have to be chosen with this timeframe in mind.

Whilst concentrating today on preventing illegal offensive state programmes, we must also begin to put in place an integrated international approach more appropriate for dealing with the more dispersed threat we almost certainly will face from the types of bioweapons examined in this project. If strong, positive, integrated action is not taken in the years ahead, we could face a situation some decades hence (and maybe not too many decades hence) where many people will have the capabilities required to cause mayhem. That response should include engaging scientists and others into initiatives that will steadily enact, elaborate and reinforce a norm that the biotechnology revolution is not to be used for the production of weaponry. This could include the incorporation of ethical codes covering ‘contentious’ research as well as the education of science students.