As experts seek to find ways to prevent advances in biotechnology research from being misused for weapons, many have urged the creation of codes of conduct for scientists. But there is little agreement on how such a code should be enforced or implemented.
Such tensions were evident as life sciences professionals and 82 states-parties of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) gathered June 13-24 for the third and final Meeting of Experts before the Sixth BWC Review Conference in 2006. Although recognizing the value of such codes, the meeting failed to move beyond agreement on a basic set of principles.
There was widespread agreement among the experts that codes of conduct would provide an important ethical foundation, foster a “culture of responsibility,” and educate scientists about the potential dual-use implications of their experiments and research. Consensus emerged around the idea of using codes with ethical and moral principles based on the BWC to complement national implementing legislation.
There were also substantial differences about the manner in which such codes should be crafted. States-parties rejected as impractical a “top-down” approach involving an enforceable and universal code of conduct for relevant scientists and laboratories. Several also questioned the need to go beyond educating and raising public awareness because a code could not prevent malicious conduct and deliberate misuse of biotechnologies.
Others advocated a “bottom-up” approach. Australia noted in one of its working papers that it was important the scientific and professional societies have a “sense of ownership” and are allowed to tailor the codes to fit their fields and adjust to relevant national legislation. This could alleviate major concerns from the life sciences community that security concerns would someday lead to restrictions on the open publication of research but increase the possibility of uneven application of codes across the life sciences community.
Richard Lennane, spokesperson for the Secretariat of the Meeting of Experts, told Arms Control Today Aug. 16 that there was wide agreement that “efforts should be encouraged at all levels.”
The Meeting of States Parties Dec. 5-9 will review and discuss the report before offering recommendations to next year’s review conference. The December meeting will be the final one in a “new process” work program adopted after the last review conference in 2001. (See ACT, December 2002.)