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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 November, 2003, 11:57 GMT
Scientists in anti-terror action
Anthrax is one of the pathogens that should be handled carefully
MPs have called on UK scientists to do more to combat the threat of terrorism.

They want researchers to analyse how their work might be misused by extreme groups, and to exercise caution when publishing particularly sensitive data.

They recommend that self-regulation be established which would allow scientists and research councils to police their own activities.

The UK's leading scientific bodies have welcomed the move which they say avoids over-zealous state intervention.

New lab

In its report published on Thursday, called The Scientific Response To Terrorism, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee says the UK is failing to harness its excellent scientific base in the development of counter-terrorism measures.

The Home Office has a weak science culture, it says, and seems content to rely on military technologies.

It is imperative we continue to fund research involving pathogens and toxins if we are to combat some of the most pernicious diseases in the world
Dr Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust
The report proposes that counter-terrorism measures are developed within the scientific community.

"The government wants to defend us against terrorism with scraps from the MOD's research," said Dr Ian Gibson, the chairman of the committee.

"We need a civil research lab that can build on some of the great science being done in British universities."

The committee recommends that research institutions and scientists monitor their own work, and the work of others.

Changed world

In practical terms, this would mean that all members of the scientific community would familiarise themselves with a code of conduct, which will be drawn up and coordinated by the research councils.

The code of conduct would demand that scientists understand the ways in which terrorists might make use of their work, and that they act with responsibility when making information public.

This self-regulation would apply particularly strongly to researchers working with dangerous substances and pathogens. And it might, on occasion, cause them to refrain from publishing particularly dangerous data.

Crucially, these measures would avoid heavy government regulation.

Scientists in the UK and the US have been worried that great restrictions might be placed on their work following the events of 11 September 2001.

In the US especially, there have been calls from some politicians for draconian restrictions on research. But many scientists believe this would create other, perhaps more serious, problems for society.

Welcome measures

"We work towards public health and if we slow down the pace of our research, people will die," said Ronald Atlas, President of the American Society of Microbiology, in February.

"On the other hand, we are revealing the potential targets by which terrorists could attack us. So it's a very careful balancing act; it's one we absolutely have to get right."

According to Britain's biggest medical research charity, the Wellcome Trust, a code of self-regulation is one of the most effective ways to control the risk of bioterrorism.

"It is imperative we continue to fund research involving pathogens and toxins if we are to combat some of the most pernicious diseases in the world," said Dr Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust.

"However, scientists employed in this small but important field of research must play their part by making sure they are aware of the potential risks involved as well as the health benefits," he continued.

"By doing this we can hopefully maintain public confidence and effectively manage any potential risk."

And the Royal Society, the UK's academy of science, said in a statement: "We agree with the committee that a code of conduct for researchers could raise and reinforce awareness of the implications of their work and international agreements, such as the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.

"Whatever strictures are applied, ultimately it will depend on an individual's judgement as to whether 'dangerous' research is conducted or not."

Bioterror fears muzzle open science
16 Feb 03  |  Denver 2003

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