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Last Updated: Monday, 19 April, 2004, 00:13 GMT 01:13 UK
Caution urged over bio research
Decontamination workers
An anthrax scare in 2001 closed US government offices
Scientists must ensure research details do not fall into terrorists' hands, say experts.

The Royal Society says scientists have a clear responsibility not to work on the illegal development of weapons.

But they will tell a UN conference researchers must be careful about publicising legitimate research which could be used to cause harm.

Experts will also say the Biological Weapons Convention needs stronger scientific support.

The research community must exercise judgement in the publication of their work
Professor Brian Eyre, Royal Society
In a paper to be presented to the United Nations Foundation conference, Royal Society experts say the scientific community must be aware of their responsibilities to work within ethical boundaries and comply with the national and international laws.

The report warns it can be harder to comply with these rules when working in the field of biotechnology.

It says many scientists are unaware of the requirements of treaties such as the Biological Weapons Convention.

'Alarm bells'

Professor Brian Eyre, chair of the Royal Society's committee on scientific aspects of international security, said biotechnology research had expanded significantly over recent years.

He told BBC News Online there had been a couple of recent examples where details of research which could be used by terrorists had been made public.

"There was a study into mousepox virus. It was developed as part of research to develop better vaccines, but the details of how this virus was extracted was published.

"There was also some work carried out in the US where researchers looked at synthesising the polio virus. Details emerged, raising alarm bells."

He added: "Clearly, there's a growing concern that if these things get into the hands of sophisticated terror groups, it could be enormously dangerous and cause a lot of panic and concern in societies.

"Scientists and institutions need to make sure they know what their responsibilities are."

The Royal Society welcomed a recent statement by a group of leading scientific journals in which they pledged to increase vigilance in identifying papers where the potential harm of publication outweighed the potential societal benefits.

But it said such decisions depended on the judgement of editors and their referees.

Counter measures

Professor Eyre added: "The research community must exercise judgement in the publication of their work and this emphasises the need to raise the awareness of the science community about the ethical and legal requirements relating to their work."

Professor Eyre said it was also important to strengthen the work of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).

The commission does not currently have a scientific advisory panel, unlike the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The Royal Society says this means the BWC does not take cutting-edge science into account.

Professor Eyre added: "There is a need for the scientific community, governments and relevant agencies to be fully aware of the potential of scientific advances both in enabling the illegal development of more lethal weapons and in developing more effective counter measures to the use of such weapons.

"Scientists also need to be aware of the potential misuse of science and of their responsibilities in meeting the requirements of international treaties and conventions aimed at preventing the proliferation and use of chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons."

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