Are we sufficiently aware of the potential for chemistry to be misused?

Advances in science and technology have the potential to provide great benefits to humanity. But often, the very same science has the potential for harm. This ‘dual-use’ issue exemplifies the ethical implications of scientists’ work but there is a growing concern that awareness of this issue among the scientists themselves is lacking.

Dual-use challenge 

The recent controversy over the creation of a highly lethal and contagious H5N1 avian influenza is a perfect example of this issue. Since the first H5N1 outbreak in 1987, several hundred cases of human infection have been confirmed, many of which have been fatal. Fortunately, sustained human-to-human transmission has yet to be found, but in late 2011 scientists in the Netherlands submitted a paper to Science reporting successful production of a virus that was transmissible in mammals and which had retained its lethality. The paper was referred to the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) and a divisive international debate broke out amongst scientists over redacting the experimental details to reduce the risk of misuse. Following clarification from the researchers, the NSABB agreed, on a split vote, that the work could be published in full. However, the Dutch government is now considering whether distribution of this dangerous knowledge should be restricted by means of export regulations.

Incidents such as these are an important reminder of the dual-use issue, but the surprise with which they are met is a grave warning regarding the awareness among the scientific community. For example, during recent efforts to strengthen the 1975 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), a working paper was produced, which noted ‘a limited awareness of the risk of malevolent misuse of the biological sciences’ among students and practising life scientists. Subsequently, it was agreed that ‘measures to encourage responsible conduct’ and ‘education and awareness-raising about risks and benefits of the life sciences’ should form part of the standing agenda for future meetings. 

In February 2012, a Royal Society report on neuroscience emphasised this concern with its first recommendation: ‘There needs to be a fresh effort by the appropriate professional bodies to inculcate the awareness of the dual-use challenge among scientists at an early stage of their training.’ 

Chemical weapons 

But what of chemistry and practising chemists? Here, the most pertinent concern is of course chemical weapons and the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). This defines chemical weapons, in part, as toxic chemicals and their precursors and a toxic chemical as ‘any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm’. This applies to all chemicals, however and wherever they are produced. So chemists, like biologists, have a responsibility to ensure that their work is not used for hostile purposes. It is also vital that chemists use their expertise to assist the ongoing efforts to strengthen the CWC as it transitions from an agreement focused on destroying stocks of chemical weapons to one that attempts to prevent the renewed development and use of chemical weapons. 

Indeed, at present there is a danger that an article of the CWC could be misunderstood, leading to a dangerous erosion of the prohibition of chemical weapons. The article permits the use of such chemicals for ‘law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes’. Thus, some could believe that the use of centrally-acting agents, such as the fentanyls used to break the 2002 Moscow theatre siege, rather than peripherally-acting standard riot control agents like CS gas, are permissible for law enforcement under the CWC. A safe incapacitating agent for such purposes is not feasible now or in the foreseeable future as the Royal Society report makes clear, but advances in neuroscience might persuade some to seek such agents and raises the danger that others would see this as a cover for a new offensive chemical weapons programme. 

At the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry’s most recent meeting in preparation for the 2013 review conference of the CWC, the director-general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) noted: ‘Many chemists, academics, scientists, engineers, technicians, have little or no exposure during their training and professional life to the ethical norms and regulatory requirements of the CWC.’ Given the rapid advances in relevant science and technology, and the risks that could arise, the scientific advisory board of OPCW has just set up a temporary working group to look at the education and awareness of chemists. 

While we do not have detailed studies - as we do for biologists - anecdotal evidence suggests it is unlikely that chemists’ knowledge of their responsibilities under these crucial international conventions is no better than that of biologists. Therefore, the worldwide community of chemists, like that of biologists, faces a massive task of cultural change for which it is ill prepared. I wonder if it is up to the task and fear what will result if it is not. 

Malcolm Dando is professor of international security at the University of Bradford, UK