Science and security in the 21st century

July 11, 2006

Over the decades, physicists and chemists have got used to the concept of dual-use research and its implications-that knowledge, technologies and materials, which could be used to construct weapons of mass destructions, are tightly regulated for security purposes. Now, with the spectre of bioterrorism looming, biologists too will have to get to grips with potential limitations on their research.

The 2006 special issue of EMBO reports on Science & Security covers the social, economic and ethical impact of dual-use research in the life sciences on society and vice versa. It also reflects on the science and technology of identifying individuals using biometrics and DNA profiles and their implications on citizens' privacy. The special issue is based on a joint EMBO/EMBL conference, which took place in October 2005.

Jonathon Tucker and Craig Hooper point out that proteomics is a research field with great potential for abuse. Natural toxins such as ricin from castor beans or bacterial toxins would make very good bioweapons, particularly for clandestine or terrorist use: they are highly effective at very low doses, they are easy to produce and there is no unwanted risk of creating a pandemic unlike infectious bacteria or viruses. The authors propose various options that could reduce the potential misuse of this research.

In another article, Jan van Aken discusses whether the sequencing of the Spanish flu virus last year was an important experiment that will help scientists to understand why this virus was so deadly or an example of irresponsible and dangerous research, which reawakened one of the most deadly pathogens humankind as ever encountered?

In July 2001, the US government withdrew from negotiations to give the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) "more teeth" in the form of on-site inspections or sanctions, citing military and economic reasons. Instead, US representatives stressed the need for a voluntary code of conduct for researchers in the life sciences to prevent the nefarious abuse of biological and medical knowledge. In her article in the special issue of EMBO reports on Science & Security, Filippa Corneliussen investigates the effect of such codes for research using recombinant DNA and comes to the conclusion that codes of conduct or non-binding reviews may not be sufficient to prevent abuse.

Early this year, advocates of civil liberties in the US were up in arms after it came to light that the US National Security Agency had amassed telecommunications data of American citizens without a warrant. Irving Louis Horowitz writes that it is not the fast pace of new technologies that is the main threat for privacy, but the responsibility to oneself and others that needs closer examination.
Author contacts:

Jan van Aken (University of Hamburg, Germany)
Tel: +49 40 431 88 001; E-mail:

Filippa Corneliussen (London School of Economics, UK)
Tel: +44 20 7107 5241; E-mail:

Jonathan Tucker (Center for Nonproliferation studies, Monterey, CA, USA)
Tel: +1 202 464 6000; E-mail:

Irving Louis Horowitz (The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick,NJ, USA)
Tel: +1 732 445 4035; E-mail:

Editorial contact:

Dr. Holger Breithaupt, EMBO reports
Tel. + 49 6221 8891 306; E-mail:

Media contact:

Ruth Francis (Nature, London)
Tel: +44 20 7843 4562; E-mail:

European Molecular Biology Laboratory

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