This article charts some of recent attention to codes as part of responses to threats with biological weapons. If you think other references should be included, please contact us.

Codes of conduct have long figured as part of the activities of professional organizations; indeed in the 19th century the establishment of codes was central to the formation of medicine, law, and engineering as professions that could be entrusted to largely manage their own affairs. In the 20th century, professional codes were further adopted and elaborated, often in response to high profile controversies. In medicine, for instance, the human experimentation atrocities committed in World War II led to the agreement of the ten ethical principles of the Nuremberg Code. This was later complemented by initiatives such as the World Medical Association’s 1948 Physician's Oath, the Helsinki Declaration originally agreed in 1964, and the establishment of institutional review boards in many countries.

In the physical and biological sciences, historically the emphasis placed on adopting codes of conduct has been much less acute than in engineering or medicine, not least because the conflicts of interest that motivated many professional codes for the latter areas were less relevant and some wished to characterize science as a value neutral activity (though see, for instance, UNESCO's 1974 Recommendations of the Status of Scientific Researchers as well as the 1999 World Conference on Science's Declaration on Science and the Use of Scientific Knowledge). Questions about the appropriateness of the involvement of scientists in military R&D has been one topic generating significant attention in Western scientific circles; one which has led to calls for explicit guidelines. Concerns about biological weapons have played a significant part in science-military-society discussions.

Bioweapons Codes

In relation to concerns about biological weapons various efforts have been made to translate voiced concerns into formalized codes. For instance, at least partially with an eye to biological weapons, in 1985 the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) published its ‘Code of Ethics’ which obliged microbiologists to ‘discourage any use of microbiology contrary to the welfare of humankind’, though leaving the meaning of this phrase open for interpretation. In 1989 the US Council for Responsible Genetics (CRG) started a pledge for scientists not to participate knowingly ‘in research and teaching that will further the development of chemical and biological agents’. In the 1990s Student Pugwash developed a pledge for young scientists analogous to the Hippocratic Oath to promote ethical reflection. It included the promise that individuals ‘will consider the ethical implications’ of their work. Joseph Rotblat then furthered the call for a type of Hippocratic Oath for scientists. Combining various oaths, codes, and declarations the International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility launched an appeal covering all forms of military research. In 1999, the British Medical Association recommended: ‘Professional scientists and physicians have an ethical responsibility to reinforce the central norm that biological and genetic weapons are unacceptable. This should be explicitly stated in codes of professional conduct in order to safeguard the public interest in matters of health and safety’. In March 2001, a group of NGOs consisting of the Los Alamos Study Group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Tri-Valley CAREs, and Western States Legal Foundation launched a Scientists' and Engineers' Pledge to Renounce Weapons of Mass Destruction.


Arguably the attention given to codes intensified dramatically in 2001 after the failure to reach agreement on a Verification Protocol to the BTWC as well as 9-11 and the US anthrax attacks. These two sets of events have brought intersecting, but not necessarily complementary, initiatives to establish codes of conduct. In November 2001, partially in response to the US rejection of the Verification Protocol and following an earlier Fact Sheet by the Bureau of Arms Control, President Bush made a number of proposals to strengthen the BTWC, including that State Parties consider how to ‘Devise a solid framework for bioscientists in the form of a code of ethical conduct that would have universal recognition.’ That same month Pax Christi called for biotech industries to adopt a code in respect of BW concerns. During 24-25 November 2001, the 16th Workshop of the Pugwash Study Group on the Implementation of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions debated the merits of codes among other topics.


The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute (CBACI) started a project titled "The Future of the Life Sciences: Reaping the Rewards and Managing the Risks" which included a call for a charter to prevent the misuse of the life sciences. In early 2002, in a Green Paper about the BTWC by the UK Foreign Office concurred with the US call for a code in suggesting that one:

would be developed by academic and professional bodies to lay out standards internationally for work relevant to the prohibition of the Convention. Such codes could include, inter alia, a statement that scientists will use their knowledge and skill for the advancement of human, animal, and plant welfare and will not conduct activities directed towards the use of micro-organisms or toxins or other biological agents for hostile purpose or in armed conflict.

In late 2002 several major scientific and medical organizations lent support to the suggestion that codes might have some policy utility. The ASM reaffirmed bioterrorism and ‘the use of microbes as biological weapons’ violated its Code of Ethics. At its annual General Assembly, the World Medical Association adopted the Washington Declaration calling for bioresearchers to ‘consider the implications and possible applications of their work and to weigh carefully in the balance the pursuit of scientific knowledge with their ethical responsibilities to society.’ In reply to the Foreign Office Green Paper, the British Royal Society gave its support to ‘codes of conduct that are developed by academic and professional bodies’ in further stating that 'addressing issues of scientific responsibility and ethics in research is an important but complex undertaking, which can only be tackled in a number of complementary ways. One is the agreement of a universal set of standards for research that can be incorporated into internationally-supported treaties; another is a concerted effort to increase awareness of international treaties and implicit codes of ethical conduct amongst researcher.'

At almost the same time the International Committee of the Red Cross launched its ‘Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity’ appeal to prevent the hostile use of biological agents. As part of this it asked political authorities ‘To encourage the development of effective codes of conduct by scientific and medical associations and by industry to govern activities and biological agents with potential for abuse’ and asked scientific and medical communities to ‘To adopt professional and industrial codes of conduct aimed at preventing the abuse of biological agents’. Following a recommendation by the Policy Working Group on the United Nations and Terrorism, in September 2002 the UN General Assembly and the Security Council endorsed the recommendation that codes of conduct be established across those areas of research relevant to weapons of mass destruction. Beside this support for codes of a general nature, various organizations offered proposals for proscriptions on biodefense, such as the Joint Code of Conduct statement for Biodefense Programs and the Council for Responsible Genetics ‘Call for a Ban on the Genetic Alteration of Pathogens for Destructive Purposes’.

In November 2002, codes of conduct entered the formal agenda of the BTWC when its President Tibor Tóth proposed the establishment of a series of annual expert and States Parties meetings for 2003, 2004 and 2005 in the run-up to the 2006 Sixth Review Conference so as to ‘promote common understanding and effective action’. In 2005, the topic for the meeting was ‘The content, promulgation, and adoption of codes of conduct for scientists’.

Since then attention to a code has continued to spread and its possible advantages repeated. During November 2002, the 18th Workshop of the Pugwash Study Group on the Implementation of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions again considered the merits of codes. That December the Foreign Affairs Committee of the UK House of Commons supported an ‘international code of conduct for scientists working with dangerous pathogens’.


In February, in response to the statement of the Policy Working Group on the United Nations and Terrorism, a UN Inter-Agency Consultative Meeting was held which encouraged the development of ethical codes of conduct for scientists and engineers. Also in that month, the British Society for General Microbiology issued a Policy on Scientific Publication, Security and Censorship.

Later that year, the biomedical charity the Wellcome Trust stated a code could play an important role the self-governance of the international scientific community by making it ‘aware of potential risks and concerns relating to terrorist misuse of research, and of the regulatory and ethical responsibilities that they hold.’ Despite reservations about the utility of a code from industry and funding councils, the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee urged British learned societies and funding councils to ‘consider introducing an overt ethical code of conduct’ linked to professional membership analogous to the Hippocratic Oath. This least the scientific community risk having ‘ill-judged restrictions placed on it by politicians’. Following a preliminary meeting in July, in December 2003 the UK government began a series of workshops with members of the scientific, medical, and industrial communities regarding codes. In December, the third meeting of the UNESCO's World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) included a session on a code of conduct for scientists with specific reference to issues associated with biological weapons.

As part a wider education strategy to alert scientists about the dangers of bioterrorism and dual-use knowledge, the National Research Council report Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism argued that ‘it is the responsibility of the research community, including scientific societies and organizations, to define what’ steps are needed to minimize the possibility that scientific knowledge will further biowarfare or bioterrorism and ‘to provide scientists with the education, skills, and support they need to honor these steps. These principles should be added to the codes of ethics of relevant professional societies’. As part of a Statement on Health Security, members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation agreed to 'establish an effective code of domestic ethical and operational conduct for bio-scientists or promote such codes where they already exist'.


In part as a response to Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism, the goals charged to the recently established US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity include developing ‘Professional codes of conduct for scientists and laboratory workers that can be adopted by professional organizations and institutions engaged in life science research’.

In March 2004 the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War lent its support to establishing 'a code of ethics … guided by the Precautionary Principle.' In April, as part of document titled The Individual and Collective Roles Scientists can Play in Strengthening International Treaties, the British Royal Society further elaborated its expectations for a code, shifting its explicit emphasis towards devising an enforceable code of practice. The United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1540 in April that called for states to develop 'appropriate ways to work with and inform industry and the public regarding their obligations under' international WMD-related laws. In May, Pax Christi further elaborated its expectations for a code and other responsive measures necessary to prevent the spread of biological weapons. A US National Research Council report regarding access to genome databases titled Seeking Security reaffirmed the earlier NRC call for professional codes of conduct. In June the American Medical Association adopted its Guidelines to Prevent Malevolent Use of Biomedical Research. The Council for Responsible Genetics initiated a Campaign for the Peaceful Development of the Biological Sciences which specified various do's and don'ts in relation to biodefense research.

Following the 2002 recommendation by the UN General Assembly and the Security Council for WMD-related codes of conduct, the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology and the InterAcademy Panel held meetings in May and September 2004 to produce a draft code for life scientists. As well in September, the OECD International Futures Programme held a conference "Promoting Responsible Stewardship in the Biosciences" which supported a code of conduct.

The Royal Society and Wellcome Trust held a meeting October titled 'Do No Harm' wherein the suggestion was advanced to take forward a scientific community derived code of conduct or code of good practice. While not explicitly recommending a code, in Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity II the British Medical Association said it would work with others to 'to develop the voluntary self-policing policies that will contribute to reducing the scientific risk' from research. Also in October, in an article Jonathan B. Tucker of the Monterey Institute of International Studies called for all researchers funded in US federal biodefense programs to be ‘required to sign a code of conduct, similar to the Hippocratic oath, that precludes them from deliberately developing agents with enhanced pathogenicity or other harmful properties and requires them to report any deviations from this norm’.

In November the International Committee of the Red Cross forwarded various Principles of Practice as a framework between general ethical responsibilities and codes of conduct. In December, Pax Christi further elaborated its call for a code of conduct for scientists and the Sunshine Project issued a 'Government Undertaking on Biodefense Programs' that made various demands on the conduct of such programs. As chair of the 2005 BTWC meetings about codes of conduct, in December a UK Ambassador wrote to all States Parties suggesting seven questions to be addressed at the June 2005 BTWC Meeting of Experts. A report titled "Fighting Bioterrorism: Tracking and Assessing U.S. Government Programs" by the CBACI called for a strong code of conduct for businesses and scientists working in the life sciences.


The meeting of the New Defence Agenda's Bioterrorism Reporting Group encouraged 'ethical codes of conduct for scientists working in sensitive bio-technologies sectors'. In March, Margaret Somerville and Ronald Atlas published a proposed a "Code of Ethics for the Life Sciences" in the journal Science in response to concerns about bioterrorism. At the "International Forum on Biosecurity", a member of the International Council for Science called for the implementation of existing and new codes of practice. In April, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute launched the charter-based International Council for the Life Sciences. In May, the UK Council for Science and Technology launched a consultation on its Rigour, Respect, and Responsibility: A Universal Code of Conduct for Scientists. Although not specifically covering biological weapons, it may play an important code for British government scientists.

In preparation for the June 2005 BTWC Meeting of Experts, its Secretariat produced four background papers: Existing Codes of Conduct which Refer to Biological and Toxin Weapons, Codes of Conduct Relevant to the Life Sciences or Biotechnology Which Do Not Refer to Biological and Toxin Weapons, Review and Analysis of Relevant Elements of Existing Codes of Conduct in Other Fields, and Relevant Organisations, Associations, Professional Bodies and Institutions Which Might Serve as Sources of Guidance on the Formulation of Codes of Conduct and as Agents for Adopting and Promulgating Such Codes. Numerous working papers, official documents, and other documents from the June Experts Meeting at available at the web site of the BTWC.

Prior to the June BTWC meeting the UK Royal Society issued a report titled The Roles of Codes of Conduct in Preventing the Misuse of Scientific Research. On June 30-July 1, the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity had its first meeting, where, among other issues, codes of conduct were discussed. The OECD International Futures Programme launched a biosecurity codes web site in mid-2005. In August Science published a number of letters in response to Somerville and Atlas' "Code of Ethics for the Life Sciences".

At the International Union of Microbiological Societies General Assembly in San Francisco in July 2005, the General Assembly agreed wording for a Code of Ethics for the Prevention of the Misuse of Scientific Knowledge, Research & Resources and also agreed to investigate how its member organizations implemented codes.

In September 2005 the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the UK Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust published a joint policy statement on managing risks of misuse associated with grant funding activities, wherein each expressed interest in further pursuing a code related to biological weapons.

In the Autumn of 2005, an occasional paper titled “Global Biosecurity: The Vital Role of Academic Leadership” was produced on the basis of a University of Virginia Tech Biosecurity Summit held in May. It called for ‘consensus building process to create and perfuse a set of standards and codes that are adaptable to academic biosecurity practitioners in all disciplines’. In the November issue of Nature, a leading scientist in the field of synthetic biology called for a code of ethics for bioengineering similiar to those in traditional fields of engineering. That month NSABB held its second public meeting which included a discussion about codes of conduct.

In December the InterAcademy Panel published its Statement on Biosecurity which set out principles that could inform the content of codes. The International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology also agreed a Code of Ethics that stated its members would not 'engage knowingly in research that is intended for the production of agents of biological warfare or bioterrorism, nor promote such agents.' That same month the BTWC held its meeting of States Parties for which many statements and working papers were produced as well as a final agreed report.


Early in the year the US Institute of Medicine and National Research Council launched a report titled Globalisation, Biosecurity, and the Future of the Life Sciences that called for the development of 'explicit national and international codes of ethics and conduct for life scientists'. In March at an open meeting, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity reported on its progress in devising a code for researchers in the US. A report by the University of California (Berkeley) in April documented efforts in the field of synthetic biology to adopt a code as part of developing community standards. Researchers at the Synthetic Biology 2.0 meeting in Berkeley, California, considered and then rejected a draft code of conduct declaration.

At the 13 July meeting of National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, the draft document titled Considerations in Developing a Code of Conduct for Dual Use Research in the Life Sciences was agreed by members of the Board.

A workshop held by the Royal Society, InterAcademy Panel & International Council for Science in September 2006 titled ‘Scientific and Technological Developments Relevant to the Biological & Toxin Weapons Convention’ gave measured support to devising codes of conduct.

During the 6th Review Conference of the BTWC (20 November to 8 December) states such as India, Japan, Pakistan and the United Kingdom made statements in support of codes. That Conference decided to hold a number of yearly intersessional meetings between 2007-10. In 2008, one of the topics for discussion will be: ‘Oversight, education, awareness raising, and adoption and/or development of codes of conduct with the aim to prevent misuse in the context of advances in bio-science and bio-technology research with the potential of use for purposes prohibited by the Convention.’


In April, the MIT Institute for International Studies produced a piece by Jeanne Guillemin about codes. Brian Rappert published a summary and analysis of code developments to date in Biosecurity & Bioterrorism.

In late 2007, the Dutch Biosecurity Working Group, under the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, launched its Code of Conduct for Biosecurity.


In March, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published an article about the code activities of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office held a seminar about codes and education in that month as well.

Under the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention the topics for discussion in 2008 include: 1. ‘National, regional and international measures to improve biosafety and biosecurity, including laboratory safety and security of pathogens and toxins'; and 2. ‘Oversight, education, awareness raising, and adoption and/or development of codes of conduct with the aim of preventing misuse in the context of advances in bio-science and bio-technology research with the potential of use for purposes prohibited by the Convention'. In preparation for the Meeting of Experts (18-22 August), the BTWC Implementation Support Unit produced a number of background documents including Developments in Codes of Conduct Since 2005. That Meeting of Experts also produced a number of statements by governments and others on the topic of codes.

In August the British Royal released a paper titled Royal Society activities on reducing the risk of the misuse of scientific research that summarised, among other things, its engagement with codes of conduct.

An industry association for the five leading German companies in the field of synthetic biology (IASB) issued a draft Code of Conduct.

In December 2008, the Council of the European Union adopted New lines for action by the European Union in combating the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems that included the suggestion that codes could help ‘to raise awareness that legitimate work can have dual-use applications'. The Meeting of States Parties to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention in December 2008 continued to address the topic of codes.


A report launched in February titled A Survey of Attitudes and Actions on Dual Use Research in the Life Sciences: A Collaborative Effort of the National Research Council and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, concluded that the (largely US) survey respondents supported ‘professional and scientific societies adopting codes of conduct.' The report recommended that ‘the professional and scientific societies that have or plan to develop codes of conduct […] communicate those policies more effectively'.

Graham Pearson produced an article summarizing code activities undertaken by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons relevant for biosafety and biosecurity.

In mid-2009, a book by Brian Rappert titled Experimental Secrets was published. It provides a detailed examination of attempts to develop bioweapons codes in recent years.

Robert Mathews and John Webb produced a chapter for a BWPP Reader titled 'Awareness-raising, Education and Codes of Conduct within the Framework of the BWC'.

The US White House National Security Council launched its National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats in November. Among the activities forwarded as part of supporting a ‘culture of responsibility' in the life sciences, the US committed itself to ‘Encouraging professional societies in the life sciences to develop and communicate codes of ethics and consider how their membership policies can best reflect community norms.'


In April, the magazine New Scientist carried a pledge for neuroscientists 'to join with other professions in moving away from militarism and violence toward a culture of peace and respect for human life'.