Speech

Dual use biology: how to balance open science with security

Speech by Sir Mark Walport at the dual use biology conference held at Wilton Park.

Thank you for your invitation to open this important conference looking at ‘dual use biology - balancing open science and responsible security’. As Government Chief Scientific Adviser, the potential dual use of science, engineering and technology is an important and sadly, a topical issue.

Before diving into biology, I will spend a few minutes in the worlds of the physical sciences and technology. Last week, I spent a day visiting Sellafield, in Cumbria.

Dual use science issues are not new. The facilities at Sellafield started being built about 60 years ago. This was just a few years after Wilton Park began its mission of international dialogue back in January 1946. And I’m very pleased to be here in support of that important role for Wilton Park.

Sellafield was designed to support both early civil and military nuclear programmes. And nuclear power remains central to tackling sustainably the world’s energy problems. Equally, it has the potential for global destruction on an unprecedented scale.

Nuclear physicists and engineers have thought and acted for many years about how to deal with both the deliberate and unforeseen consequences of dual use. Today, for instance, the International Nuclear Security Education Network provides a range of education initiatives and access to a host of codes of conduct, conventions and security practices that help the situation.

Turning to the world of technology, the Council for Science and Technology, which I jointly chair, wrote to the Prime Minister this summer about the economic importance of algorithms.

Algorithms are the keys that can unlock data to provide information, knowledge and services. And they are an important aspect of cryptography. Cryptography enables secure communications. We depend upon cryptography for the provision of many of the services that we take for granted. But a huge driver of cryptography has been war and conflict, about getting information you want from an adversary whilst keeping your own information safe. It is intrinsic to cryptography that it is dual use.

But to what extent can the uses and spread of the most secure cryptographic tools be controlled, given the increasing dominance of the digital world and the global internet? Mechanisms in force today to control and regulate cryptography include the traditional tool of ‘trade secrecy’ and regulations such as the US ‘International Traffic in Arms’ Regulations. These place restrictions on the sharing, shipping, transmission or transfer of all encryption software to foreign persons - but the challenges of enforcement are obvious.

This leads me to biology, chemistry and pharmacology and the most obvious current abuse of biological science. Look at Syria and the horrific sights of people suffocating and suffering convulsions, pinpoint pupils, excessive salivation and difficulty in breathing. These are the tell-tale signs of excessive cholinergic nerve transmission caused by chemical blockade of acetylcholinesterase, the enzyme that regulates the activity of the neurotransmitter acetyl choline in synaptic clefts. This is consistent with the abuse of our understanding of neurotransmitter mechanisms on a massive scale.

The case of acetylcholine is the epitomy of the challenges facing biologists when we think about dual use research. Henry Dale discovered acetylcholine in 1914 and Otto Loewi demonstrated its neurotransmitter activity a few years later. They rightly received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1936.

What have been the applications of this discovery? Well first and foremost it opened up the field of modern neurochemistry and neurobiology. In medicine, compounds that block the enzyme cholinesterase are used to reverse anaesthetic relaxant agents and to treat myasthenia gravis. In nature, compounds have evolved in the competition between species that interfere with this neurotransmitter pathway, such as curare and botulinum toxin.

And in the context of this meeting, humans have used this pathway to kill. Many insect pesticides selectively block insect cholinesterase enzymes - and - turning to Syria, chemical weapons such as sarin have their lethal effects by irreversible blocking of acetylcholinesterase.

So should we have stopped Henry Dale and Otto Loewi from conducting their research - I think not - humans have always been curious and have always used their discoveries for both good and evil, be it fire, gunpowder or neurotransmitters. Our challenge now, as it always was is to achieve the benefits and minimise the harms of new discoveries - and it is for all of society to work together to achieve this.

So how can this meeting help? You have dedicated sessions this week on the genetic manipulation of mousepox virus; the publication of the entire genome sequence for the Spanish influenza; and the 2012 debate about the research carried out in ferrets on the transmissibility of H5N1. And, if you look at publications on dual use science over the last few years, you can see that each of these areas of research has stimulated a burst of heart-searching about the conduct of research that has obvious potential for harm, if misapplied or indeed if carried out in a careless fashion.

Science is an increasingly multidisciplinary activity and this is also true of science that could have dual uses. For example scientists from Stanford University published in 2005 a mathematical model of a theoretical bioterrorist attack. This attack took advantage of the centralised and automated production of dairy products to spread botulinum toxin within the population. The conclusion was that, through rapid distribution and consumption, terrorist action could potentially result in several hundred thousand people poisoned.

Two points are worth noting. Though it is a biological agent, the botulinum toxin, that would cause the harm, it would be the application of the mathematics that causes the dual use threat in this case. Secondly, the researchers suggested to the US government how they might work with the food processing industries to assess their supply chains to prevent and mitigate such a catastrophic event. There is a strongly arguable case that the research enabled the mitigation of this threat.

My other example is of the ‘de novo’ chemical synthesis of the genome of viable poliovirus. This was based on publicly available sequence data from the internet and was published in ‘Science’ in 2002. It demonstrates the increasing convergence between biology and chemistry.

A Royal Society seminar on this topic held in The Hague in February this year concluded that such convergence could possibly lead to the development of new chemical weapons, especially when combined with developments in nanotechnology and synthetic biology. This convergence blurs the distinction between chemical and biological weapons including toxins, peptide-based bioregulators and incapacitating biochemical agents.

There are a few other features of the contemporary science environment that I would also like to highlight. The first is the issue of safety. In the UK, the most hazardous research on pathogens is carried out in high containment laboratories, mostly Category 3 and a very small number of Category 4 laboratories, operated by government, industry and academia. Many here will remember the incident in 2007, in which foot and mouth disease was released from the Pirbright site. Ultimately, the security and safety of our laboratories is not something that we can take for granted. The maintenance of the highest standards demands both the best engineering and maintenance and also the highest standard of behaviour of the scientists allowed to use these facilities.

On top of this, the ability to cook using scientific recipes is increasingly available to all-comers. Genetic material and synthesis can be ordered through the mail or over the internet. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology operates a registry of standard biological parts available to all.

And finally, novel manufacturing processes are emerging, such as 3D printing. These may reduce the engineering barriers to the misuse of scientific discoveries for terrorist ends.

So - what can we do about all of this? As I have described, the potential for the dual use of research runs across science, engineering and technology. We need to ensure the framework - ethical, operational and legislative - is proportionate and recognises the risks and the benefits that may arise from research. There are already a number of important tools to do that.

In my view we have to start with the ethics and the values of scientists. I was a member of the working party led by David King my predecessor that set out a universal code of ethics in 2007. This has 7 principles:

  1. act with skill and care in all scientific work - maintain up to date skills and assist their development in others
  2. take steps to prevent corrupt practices and professional misconduct - declare conflicts of interest
  3. be alert to the ways in which research derives from and affects the work of other people, and respect the rights and reputations of others
  4. ensure that your work is lawful and justified
  5. minimize and justify any adverse effect your work may have on people, animals and the natural environment
  6. seek to discuss the issues that science raises for society - listen to the aspirations and concerns of others
  7. do not knowingly mislead, or allow others to be misled, about scientific matters - present and review scientific evidence, theory or interpretation honestly and accurately

This is a pretty good start - but is not sufficient. The research community has to work in concert to enable these values to operate in a self-regulating community. And here I believe that a concordat, an agreement between all of the participants in the research endeavour is a very important way forward - and if national concordats can be followed by an international concordat, that would be an excellent outcome.

A concordat would bring together the researchers, their employers, research funders and journals. These each have a complementary role in research and, if each operate effectively, provide multiple points at which research is scrutinised and evaluated.

Many of the pieces of a concordat are in place. For example the UK Medical Research Council has published a position statement on bioterrorism and biomedical research. This emphasises that further research involving harmful pathogens and toxins will be crucial in the fight to combat the diseases that these agents cause and to improve our ability to respond to bioterrorist attacks. And it strongly advocates ‘a system based on self-governance by the scientific community’ with fundamental checks and balances such as peer review and Research Ethics Committees.

In the United States, the Department of Health and Human Services published an updated ‘United States government policy for institutional oversight of life sciences dual use research of concern’ in February this year. It contained guiding principles;

  • a balance of risks and benefits - recognising both the need for security and the need for research progress
  • shared responsibility for oversight - between Federal agencies funding dual use research, the recipients of those public funds, and individuals who conduct the research
  • the key role of the principal investigator (the lead scientist or engineer) in identifying, sharing and managing the risks

Lastly, there is legislation. A vast array of legislative instruments apply to dual use research at the national and international levels. Health and safety legislation governs the security of laboratories; export control rules restrict dual use commerce; and international conventions govern biological and chemical toxins. But we simply can not rely on legislation.

Ultimately the scientific community has to have and uphold the highest ethical values and standards - and these need clear expression.

That is why I think the code of universal ethics for scientists is so important and why I would argue for the importance of an explicit concordat. And we are not starting from a blank page. We have a long history, as I’ve illustrated, of dealing with dual use research of concern. Many countries and funding organisations have laid down sound principles and approaches.

I hope that these thoughts will provoke you and that you will have a stimulating discussion - but talk needs to turn into action - and that is my challenge to you, the participants at this conference. What comes next? I have made 1 suggestion - over to you!