Project duration: February 2004–March 2007
Project researchers: Brian Rappert and Malcolm Dando

Since 11 September 2001 and the anthrax attacks that followed in the US, public and policy concerns about the security threats posed by biological weapons have increased significantly. This project funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) New Security Challenges Programme examined the assumptions and implications of national and international efforts in one such area: how a balance or integration could take place between security and openness in civilian research.

Specifically it did so through analysing and partaking in attempts to establish international codes of conduct for bioscientists (particularly under the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention). This project examined deliberations about codes in relation to political and historical negotiations about the purposes of bioscience research and the legitimacy of particular forms of violence. It sought to further an understanding of how science, technology, and ethics are co-constructed through examining attempts to establish norms for actions and categories of acceptable research practice. The problem-orientated and engagement orientated research design sought to foster mutual conceptual and empirical understanding of the issues at stake regarding bioweapons between bioscientists, policy makers and social scientists.

A number of key questions underpinned the project:

  • What sort of codes and other mechanisms for controlling research have been or are being offered to reduce the threats associated with bioweapons? What threats are codes offered as a response against? How are and could they be embedded within the practices of researchers?
  • How are “the norms of science” varyingly defined, articulated, and accomplished in relation to the control of biological weapons by those in national security, bioscience and social science communities? How are the significance and relevance of norms or rules about acceptable conduct negotiated in relation to (perhaps mutually informing) characterisations of security threats and research practice?
  • Combining insights from sociological and security studies, how can policy makers develop new approaches for minimising bioweapon threats through engagement with the bioscience community?

This project examined these issues through a research design consisting of a series of inter-linked streams: a review of past national and international attempts to establish codes of conduct in the biosciences and to establish bounds of acceptable 'dual use' research; a workshop for scientists regarding the appropriateness of introducing codes of conduct in response to national security concerns; a literature review of bioscientists' writing in scientific and medical journals regarding the definition, legitimacy and threats of bioweapons.

Workshop: Responding to the bioweapons threat

Both public and policy concerns about the security threats posed by biological weapons had increased significantly in recent years. With this had come an expansion of activities where the wisdom of applying national security controls is being considered. As part of this, questions were being asked in the UK and elsewhere regarding what novel threats might stem from biological research, how scientists can contribute to national defence, and whether some lines of investigation are too ‘contentious’ to pursue.

As part of this ESRC, Malcolm Dando and Brian Rappert conducted a series of workshops for audiences of active researchers or students. It sought to engage participants in discussions about the future threats posed by biological weapons, the relation between current biomedical and bioscientific research and new weapons possibilities, and the range of national and international measures currently be implemented or considered. The workshop is designed to promote discussion and the active participation of attendees about questions such as ‘What role can life scientists play in combating bioweapon threats?’, ‘What are the social responsibilities of biologists today?’, and ‘How should experimental results be made public?’.

The workshop aimed to fit in one hour; ideally with a fairly small audience to ensure active discussion. The workshops were set up as part of professional organisational meetings as well as university or industry seminars.

Workshop materials

Both the slides and the handout of the workshop are available.

Workshop outcomes

Reports about the workshops (minus the 2 pilot seminars) were produced as part of our project. These were sent back to participants for feedback: Report 1 (workshops 1-5), Report 2 (Workshops 6-10), Report 3 (Workshops 11-16), and Report 4 (Workshops 17-24). Leading the workshops has been the basis for developing a strategy for engaging scientists.