Conference on Bio-Chem S&T and Security: Royal Society 19-21st November 2014

We are hosting a conference which will bring together policy makers and academics to discuss  the future of bio-chem arms control and non-proliferation.

A conference flyer is available here

In particular the meeting will focus on:

  • Cutting-edge fields of innovation of  potential misuse concern
  • National  and supra-national models of dual-use innovation oversight
  •  S&T review processes within the biological and chemical weapons conventions
  • Industry engagement with biological and chemical weapon non-proliferation issues.

 Confirmed Speakers Include

  • Professor Mike Imperiale, University of Michigan Medical School
  • Professor Silja Vöneky, Universität Freiburg
  • Dr Nicholas Evans, University of Pennsylvania.
  • Dr Koos van der Bruggen, Working Group on Biosecurity at KNAW
  • Dr Caitriona McLeish, University of Sussex
  • Dr James Revill, University of Sussex
  • Professor Simon Wain-Hobson,Institut Pasteur
  • Dr Michael Crowley, University of Bradford
    Professor Malcom Dando, University of Bradford
  • Dr Ralf Trapp, Independent Arms Control Consultant
  • Dr Piers Millet, Former Deputy Head of the Implementation Support Unit, Biological Weapons Convention, United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs
  • Dr Stefan Mogl, Spiez Laboratory
  • Dr Laura Adam, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS)
  • Dr Gary Burns, Independent Biosafety and Biosecurity Consultant
    Dr Catherine Rhodes, University of Manchester
  • Dr Jonathan Forman, OPCW

Registration is required. Please contact Brett Edwards @ for further information.

S&T in focus… Opening Statements at the BWC MX 2014

The first day of the 2014 Meeting of Experts kicked off with statements from States Parties. As is often the case in the context of  the BWC, S&T already looks like becoming a forum for the discussion of several long-standing bones of contention, as well as  specific trends and developments.   The Opening Statement from Pakistan for example, which is aligned with a larger group of states parties (the non-aligned movement) reflects  some of the key diplomatic challenges related to the discussion of advances in S&T in this forum.

The delegation expressed it’s concern about ‘…new developments in Science and Technology that have the potential for uses contrary to the convention. ‘

The statement went on, to outline in a general sense, Pakistan’s  anxieties regarding to the field of Synthetic Biology.  In response the statement called for states to employ  ‘the utmost transparency’ and ‘confidence building measures’ the report also outlined the need for strict regulation of the field to ensure that  ‘it does not lead to any concerns related to safety and security as well as incidents of proliferation that have no justification for prophylatic, protective or other peaceful purposes’. The  reference to ‘purposes’ of course, is associated with long-standing questions about how how to ensure that defensive state programs are not a cover for offensive programmes. Unlike it’s sister treaty the Chemical Weapons Convention, the BWC has no such legally binding compliance assurance mechanism, which involves for example independent  inspections of  certain facilities capable in theory of producing weapons.

Indeed, the need to ensure compliance was the focus of the Russian  Opening Statement. The Russian delegation outlined an initiative which would involve a ‘collegial examination’ of how to strengthen the convention through a legally binding instrument. The Delegation also pointed to a mandate which stretches back to  1994. This mandate was agreed upon before the last major (and ill-fated) attempt to develop a compliance verification mechanism.  This initiative has attracted the attention of a few of those looking on.


However, it quickly became apparent that things might not be straightforward, even at this early stage,  when the Delegation referred to 3 out of 27 states who had not responded positively to their questionnaire. While 3 out of 24 isn’t much – some states are more equal than others in the context of the BTWC, so this begged the question whether any of these three states could have enough  clout to kill the proposal. The question was left unanswered by the statement, as the Russian Delegation chose only to identify who had responded. They did not identify who had responded negatively to the proposal.

The US were also eager to clarify that they had declined to respond, rather than gone against the proposal. They did state however that going back to a previous negation process would be ‘Counter Productive’. Such resistance at such an early stage leaves little room for optimism for the fate of this specific proposal. However, there is an informal meeting the evening being hosted by the Russian Delegation, so more to follow on this issue.

Going back to the statement from Pakistan however, it’s concern about the need for  controls  on of research and biotechnology in the name of security were juxtaposed with it’s commitment to ensuring that developed states share advances in science and technology with developing  countries ( this requirement is referred to in article X of the convention).  In particular Pakistan asserted that ‘the potential dual-use nature  of emerging technologies in itself should not be used as a pretext for proscribing or restricting their availability to developing countries for peaceful purposes’.

Such sentiments, reveal the complex political environment in which discussions about S&T occur in the context of the BTWC.  Added to this, they also serve to demonstrate the  rhetorical way in which poster-boy fields,  such as Synthetic Biology are used as a type of short-hand in the discussion of a range of issues related to advances in S&T which face the regime.  The fact that there is no specific agreement in the BTWC about the definition of Synthetic Biology is beside the point.

More to follow Wednesday, when S&T is addressed as a Standing Agenda Item.

Brett Edwards

-This article has been updated in order to clarify the US position.-


Taking stock of security concerns related to synthetic biology in an age of responsible innovation

In early May, the German Ethics Council produced an in-depth report on the oversight of dual-use research of concern (DURC) (1). The report follows in the wake of recent international emergency reviews of avian influenza research and builds on discussions which have been taking place internationally for over a decade (2).

In addition to calling for greater awareness raising and education in the scientific community. The report also calls for the establishment of a new legal framework to address DURC within Germany. This framework would provide a legal definition of DURC and would require researchers to report to a newly established central DURC committee before embarking on certain lines of research. Such a legal framework would also generate new responsibilities for those outside the research team who impact upon the research process; from funding right through to publication. For example, this would include new legal responsibilities for Laboratory Biosecurity Officers.

Such an approach would be in stark contrast to the patch-work of largely voluntary measures which are in place in the rest of the world. The German Ethics Council has also taken the view that Germany should encourage the adoption of similar review models at EU level and internationally.

Dual-Use and Precaution

The summary report of the full 300 page document produced by the German Ethics Council, which is yet to be published in English, notes that:

ethical analysis leads to the conclusion that scientific responsibility in the area of DURC is mainly to be governed by the precautionary principle (emphasis added) [Ref. (3), p. 3].

In essence, the precautionary principle places the burden of proof upon the scientific community to demonstrate that  DURC should be carried out, and is being carried out in a responsible way. The precautionary principle tends to be brought into play in the context of complex risks, which are political challenges characterized by complexity, uncertainly, and ambiguity [Ref. (4), p. 235]. Dual-use issues are complex as they do not involve simple causal chains of events with easily quantifiable consequences, but rather a large set of intervening variables with unknown or even unknowable consequences. This is true not only in relation to thinking about the harms of research, but also its potential benefits. Dual-use issues also involve uncertainty, as there is insufficient data or information to convincingly produce risk verses benefit assessments of single experiments or lines of research. Dual-use issues are also ambiguous, as they typically involve conflicts over ethical and professional values.

Developing a legal and ethical framework to address these issues requires intricate webs of collaboration between institutions, in the context of policy strategy and design, as well as in the context of implementation. This creates a challenging environment in which to develop and sustain policy initiatives which are directed at problems that receive only periodic interest from publics and governments.

The reassertion of the role of the precautionary principle in the context of dual-use research provides a suitable moment to reflect on broader security concerns related to emerging techno-sciences such as synthetic biology, which extend beyond the single experiments commonly described as constituting DURC. These concerns relate to trends, which could undermine existing models of oversight (such as material and technology containment strategies). This includes concerns about the proliferation of foundation technologies, which could be utilized to modify or synthesize pathogens. These concerns also relate to broader trends in the underlying structures and funding of innovation (5). This includes concerns about de-skilling and proliferation dynamics in life-science research. The dynamics could potentially undermine existent and advocated approaches, which place emphasis on local level ethics review, as well as laboratory safety and security (6).

Many of these broader concerns are best thought of as anxieties rather than risks, in that discussions about them are largely speculative. However, as non-proliferation experts have been keen to reassert, new security challenges are inevitable and existing national and international systems of oversight are poorly prepared (7). It is in this context that the field of synthetic biology has become somewhat of a test-bed for novel security initiatives. In the following section there is an introduction to how dual-use concerns have emerged in relation to the broader field of synthetic biology, as well as some of the political realities facing those developing policy in this area.

Emergence of Dual-Use Concerns about Synthetic Biology in a US and European Context

There have been discussions of security concerns related to the practices and technologies of synthetic biology as far back as the community and institutions of the field can be identified. This is perhaps unsurprising considering that the field emerged in the post 9/11 political environment. However, what is surprising is the high levels of attention this field has received as compared to other contemporary fields of innovation (such as nano-biotechnology).

A key reason for this is that engagement with misuse concerns has been a stipulation of research funding in both the US and the UK. The requirement to address dual-use concerns was incorporated into the National Science Foundation funding criteria for synthetic biology when the first major publicly funded research center was established [Ref. (8), p. 15]. This led to the establishment of the first major ethical, legal, and social issue (ELSI) thrust with an explicit mandate to consider bioweapon issues. As a result, such concerns also took hold in a European context  as the field was being institutionalized by the research funding bodies. During these early stages a broad range of misuse concerns were under discussion, including those related to the threat of bioterrorism and biowarfare (9–11).

There are two key factors which are important to thinking about dual-use as an ELSI issue. The first is that dual-use concerns have been a novel addition to more traditional ELSI concerns associated with new and emerging science and technology (such as safety). This means that the issue often competes with more established issues on the ELSI agenda. Security concerns have been more dominant in a US context, but less pronounced in a European ELSI context (12).

Second, misuse concerns have emerged at a time in which the very concept and practice of ELSI governance is being made subject to transformation. Both funders and society are increasingly demanding “up-stream” engagement by ELSI thrusts with the innovation process [Ref. (8), p. 15; Ref. (13)]. Up-stream engagement with the innovation process involves engineering safety and security into technologies and research practices, rather than just responding to the challenges raised by the products of innovation. Up-stream engagement is also typically understood to involve pro-active engagement with key regulators and stakeholders to pre-emptively address potential ethical and legal concerns. Increasingly, such engagement is understood as a part of national government policy to address forward looking concerns about new and emerging science and technology (14, 15). However, there are several characteristics of dual-use politics, which de-limits the scope and feasibility of such endeavors, which have been reflected in the recent history of dual-use synthetic biology governance in a UK and US context.

From Broad Anxieties to Narrow Actions

The first issue is that despite some of the regulatory back-lash myths, which linger in the US and Europe, governments have not tended to exhibit appetites to legislate specifically in relation to dual-use concerns related to synthetic biology. Particularly, with respect to those concerns, which could not be addressed through incremental amendments to law covering laboratory security and safety. Such a situation is symptomatic of a more general trend in dual-use governance in national contexts, in which there is an absence of clear institutional responsibility to develop such policy programs. It is worth noting, however, that even in the absence of “top-down” approaches, regulatory bodies can still play a fundamental role in the fate of so-called “bottom-up” initiatives; by providing financial, political as well as technical support. Such collaboration is also essential if up-stream engagement with the field is actually to result in the development, adoption, and sharing of best-practices nationally.

The second issue is that despite the emphasis on up-stream engagement and best practice sharing at institutions such as SynBERC there has not been substantial investment into systematic and nationwide examinations of the way in which dual-use issues are currently dealt with in different institutional contexts. This is even the case in relation to the field of synthetic biology. Such engagement is necessary if policy discussions about cutting-edge fields are going to be tied to concrete risk identification and management activities in the institutions in which research is taking place. It would seem that without such data gathering, much discussion, particularly in ELSI forum will be condemned to remain an exercise in “speculative ethics” (16).

A final issue is that while considering how to improve security practices at local level is important, there is still a requirement for institutional capacities to identify and respond to much more fundamental trends in S&T, which go beyond the scope of the local level review. In relation to synthetic biology in the US for example, the emphasis on the centrality of local level review, has led to an artificial narrowing of dual-use discussions. For example, the so-called “Sloan Report” (17) still represents one of the most substantial and influential technical reviews of security concerns related to synthetic biology. Yet this report largely externalized those concerns, which could not be identified and managed at local level. Other major reports produced in the US on synthetic biology have also tended to adopt this framing (14, 18).

In particular, the prospect of state level misuse of advances in the life-sciences in the development of weapons has been largely absent from US discussions of synthetic biology as a security concern. In a European context, the issue has only received substantial attention in more recent years. A report on an expert meeting hosted by the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (supported by the European Commission), describes the various ways in which developments in synthetic biology could re-ignite military interest in biological weapons and potentially undermine existing oversight regimes at national and international level (19).

Such concerns are particularly pressing when one considers the existing challenges, which face the international regime tasked with preventing the development and use of biological weapons. This includes the absence of a system to verify state compliance, which is unlikely to change. While there is slightly more hope for improving the science and technology review system within the regime, improvements continue to be frustrated by a range of bureaucratic and diplomatic issues (20, 21).


To sum up, the point of this article was not to argue that synthetic biology poses an imminent security threat, but instead to argue that while our capacity to imagine misuse scenarios is boundless, our institutional capacities to engage with the less whimsical of these concerns remains quite limited, and developments in policy in this area have been hard won. For some this will not be a cause for alarm, but for others, particularly those with less faith in the resilience of the current norm against biological weapons, this issue continues to be a source of unease.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The author declares that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.


I am grateful to Prof. Kathryn Nixdorff for drawing my attention to the work of the German Ethics Committee at a recent meeting on Regional Innovation Biosecurity hosted by the Biochemical Security 2030 Project, at the University of Bath. I am also grateful to the reviewers of this paper and the editors of this Research Topic.


1. Deutscher E. Biosicherheit – Freiheit Und Verantwortung in Der Wissenschaft. Berlin: Deutscher Ethikrat (2014). Available form:

2. National Research Council and Committee on Research Standards and Practices to Prevent the Destructive Application of Biotechnology. Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press (2004).

3. Deutscher E. Biosecurity: Freedom and Responsibility of Research – Summary and Recommendations. Berlin: Deutscher Ethikrat (2014).

4. Renn O, Andreas K, Marjolein A. Coping with complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity in risk governance: a synthesis. Ambio (2011) 40:231–46. doi: 10.1007/s13280-010-0134-0

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5. Aldrich S, James N, Robert C. Scenarios for the future of synthetic biology. Ind Biotechnol (2008) 4:39–49. doi:10.1089/ind.2008.039

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6. Schmidt M. Diffusion of synthetic biology: a challenge to biosafety. Syst Synth Biol (2008) 2(1):1–6. doi:10.1007/s11693-008-9018-z

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7. Kelle A, Kathryn N, Malcolm RD. Preventing a Biochemical Arms Race. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press (2012).

8. Rabinow P, Bennett G. Designing Human Practices: An Experiment with Synthetic Biology. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press (2012).

9. European Commission. Synthetic Biology: Applying Engineering to Biology. Report of a NEST High-Level Expert Group, Brussels (2005). Report 21796.

10. Maurer SM, Lucas KV, Terrell S. From Understanding to Action: Community-Based Options for Improving Safety and Security in Synthetic Biology. Berkeley: University of California (2006).

11. Balmer A, Martin P. Synthetic Biology: Social and Ethical Challenges. Nottingham: Institute for Science and Society, University of Nottingham (2008).

12. Edwards B, Kelle A. A life scientist, an engineer and a social scientist walk into a lab: challenges of dual-use engagement and education in synthetic biology. Med Confl Surviv (2012) 28(1):5–18. doi:10.1080/13623699.2012.658659

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13. Calvert J, Martin P. The role of social scientists in synthetic biology. EMBO Rep (2009) 10(3):201–4. doi:10.1038/embor.2009.15

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14. Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies (2010). Available from:

15. Commons Select Committee. “Bioengineering” Seventh Report of Session 2009-10. London: (2010). Available from:

16. Marris C, Rose N. Let’s get real on synthetic biology. New Sci (2012) 214(2868):28–9. doi:10.1016/S0262-4079(12)61478-X

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17. Garfinkel MS, Endy D, Epstein GL, Friedman RM. Synthetic genomics: options for governance. Ind Biotechnol (2007) 3(4):333–65. doi:10.1089/ind.2007.3.333

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18. NSABB. Addressing Biosecurity Concerns Related to Synthetic Biology. Washington, DC: (2010). Available from:

19. UNICRI. Security Implications of Synthetic Biology and Nanobiotechnology: A Risk and Response Assessment of Advances in Biotechnology (Shortened Public Version). Geneva: United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (2012).

20. Dando M. To What Extent was the Review of Science and Technology made more Effective and Efficient at the 2013 Meeting of BTWC States Parties? Biochemical Security Project Paper series. University of Bath (2014). Available from:

21. Nixdorff K. The 2013 Meeting of Experts to the BWC, with a Focus on the Standing Agenda Item Review of Science and Technology Developments. Biochemical Security Project Paper series (2013). Available from:

Keywords: synthetic biology, biosafety, biosecurity, ethics, dual-use, public health, policy

This is a corrected (typos) version of:

Citation: Edwards B (2014) Taking stock of security concerns related to synthetic biology in an age of responsible innovation. Front. Public Health2:79. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2014.00079

Received: 11 May 2014; Accepted: 26 June 2014;
Published online: 09 July 2014.

Edited by:

Jonathan E. Suk, European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Sweden

Reviewed by:

Samuel A. Weiss Evans, University of California Berkeley, USA

Copyright: © 2014 Edwards. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.


First steps in a regional biochemical security initative…

Last week a meeting held at the University of Bath brought together practitioners and experts in order to discuss the implications of innovation in biology and chemistry for security in a UK context. In recent years, security concerns related to this issue area have received intermittent public attention. This has been primarily in the wake of the US Anthrax attacks in 2001, as well as in relation to chemical weapon atrocities in Syria. There has also been recent press coverage, as well as high-level emergency reviews, related to security concerns about research into avian influenza which demonstrated how to make the virus more transmissible. The avian influenza discussions, follow over a dozen other reviews of comparable cases in the previous decade, in  a range of institutions internationally.

Discussion During the  Round-table Session. Photo by R.Guthrie

Discussion During the Round-table Session. Photo by R.Guthrie

At the event, there was emphasis on the need to ensure that civilian technologies, materials and expertise related to innovation did not contribute to the prospect of bio-chemical terrorism or warfare. Often such discussions focus on lock and key containment type strategies. However, the emphasis within this project is to think about how novel approaches can be developed which allow for a broader range of misuse scenarios, and S&T trends of potential concern to be addressed in a pre-emptive and responsible way. For example, this includes considering how existing local-level ethics review and safety practices could potentially be developed to more explicitly and comprehensively address security concerns.

One practical aim of the meeting was to discuss the potential value of regional networks in biochemical security, with an emphasis on the role of local research institutions as well other stake-holders at a local and national level. The meeting was led by Professor David Galbreath and Brett Edwards, both from the department of Politics, Languages and International Studies. In attendance were local laboratory biosafety and ethics experts, academics and policy experts, as well as representatives from several government organisations.

The meeting was designed to encourage frank discussion between practitioners and policy shapers. On the day, the meeting involved opening presentations by key institutions. This included a presentation from Cathy Day, Head of Health, Safety and Environment at the University of Bath. The round-table session in the was chaired by Dr James Revill, University of Sussex. Dr Revill stated that:

‘ these sorts of meetings are important for  exchanging ideas and maintaining a workable system at the national level to prevent the hostile exploitation of chemical and biological weapons in a changing world’

The meeting also included several round-table  discussion sessions  led by: Professor Kathryn Nixdorff, Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Genetics, Darmstadt University of Technology; Dr Jo Husbands, Senior Project Director US National Academies of Science; Dr Ralf Trapp, international arms control consultant as well as Professor Galbreath, University of Bath.

A report of the meeting is under production, however some key provisional findings are:

  • The idea that innovation security policy is developed and implemented in quite different ways in different university contexts.
  •   That a range of local, regional and national networks (both formal and personal) already exist which address which are relevant regional innovation security policy.
  •   That there are a number of potential ways by which institutional innovation security policy could be more forward looking. For example it was suggested that there was need for greater security consultation when new laboratories were being designed and built.
  •   That greater engagement with the scientific community, as well as education initiatives directed at this community would be of value to many of the stake-holders.
  • That regional biochemical security networks could serve a number of potential roles and had support from many of those in attendance.

After the meeting, Professor Galbreath Stated that:

‘The ethical and risk management of chemistry and biology occurs at many levels from the United Nations to individual scientists in the lab. The meeting was a great opportunity to bring these different levels together to talk about the challenges to these scientific advances and how they pose a problem for security and public health. I am exceptionally pleased with the understanding and co-operative spirit of the participants and look forward to further cooperation with our partners at the ESRC and DSTL as well as through a South West Bio-chemical Security Initiative.’

Further information on the project, as well as a policy paper series are available at the project website ( The policy paper series addresses policy challenges at the interphase of innovation and security policy in the context of biological and chemical weapons regimes. Recent publications have focused on the challenges posed by state level investment in to incapacitating chemical weapons, current science and technology review processes at international level, as well as the potential challenges posed by amateur biologists.


The Biochemical Security 2030 Project is funded by the ESRC and DSTL under the RCUK Global Uncertainties initiative as part of the Science and Security Programme. The original project was designed and submitted by Dr Alexander Kelle (University of Bath) whom is currently seconded to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The principle Investigator on the project is Professor David Galbreath, supported by the work of Brett Edwards.

Brett Edwards, 12th May 2014

Workshop on Regional Innovation Biochemical Security, University of Bath 1st May

Interested in how biological and chemical innovation is relevant to security?

There is a one day event on Regional Innovation Biochemical Security taking place on May 1st 2014 at the University of Bath. This workshop will examine the prospect of regional networks on security relevant aspects  of innovation,  within the biological and chemical sciences.  Central to this network, would be those involved in; biological and chemical research, associated industries , as well as those who support and regulate innovation. Our first meeting  will address a range of issues, including; laboratory  safety and security,  forward-looking security concerns related to advances in science and technology, as well as opportunities to improve security through scientific and social research. This meeting will also bring together a range of stakeholders; including scientists, industry representatives, research institution representatives as well as  regulators. Further details about this meeting are outlined below.

What is the event about?

Advances in science and technology (S&T) hold the promise of great benefits for society, including improved security. At the same time however, S&T is also associated with concerns about misuse and safety. This includes, for example,  concerns about terrorist misuse of pathogens, as well as state level development of biological and chemical weapons. There are likely to be further types of concern as the Bioeconomy continues to develop at pace  over the coming decades.

In response, a web of measures  (local, national as well as international)  are under development. This web of measures  is designed to  secure  technologies, hazardous materials, and in some cases even knowledge, associated with biochemical innovation.  This web also includes activities designed to attribute and mitigate biological and chemical attacks. In a UK context, concerns about chemical and biological weapons have led to a range of responses. First, the Home Office  has identified biological and chemical weapons as potential threats within the national anti-terrorism strategy. Second, scientific institutions have become increasingly involved in initiatives designed to ensure that researchers consider the misuse potential of research, and where necessary modify research design and how findings are disseminated.  Scientific institutions also contribute technical expertise to policy making in this area.  Added to this, there has also been investment  in both the UK and internationally into research and response capacity to help make the armed forces and public more resilient to the threat of biological and chemical weapons attack.

Taken together these activities constitute  Innovation Biochemical Security. This idea can be usefully broken down into several related components.

The Three Primary Aspects of Innovation Biochemical Security

The Three Primary Aspects of Innovation Biochemical Security

‘Practice’  involves institutional approaches to implementing legal and ethical responsibilities.  This includes for example, ensuring compliance with relevant health and safety, and anti-terrorism regulation. It also includes developing awareness and vigilance within industry and the scientific community.

Foresight’ involves identifying and assessing  the risks and benefits stemming from cutting-edge science and technology. This includes the technical challenges raised for local implementation, as well as the challenges raised by trends in science and technology for governance frameworks more fundamentally.

‘Innovation’ involves both scientific and policy initiatives which seek to make additions to the web of governance measures aimed at improving biological and chemical security.  This includes  the development of new technologies for the detection,  mitigation and attribution of attacks. It also includes technologies designed to aid the  destruction of   such weapons. A notable recent example are the technologies which have been developed to aid the destruction of  Syrian chemical weapon precursors at sea. Another key aspects of innovation is  the development of new forums to identify and, where appropriate, respond to biochemical security concerns.  An example of such an endeavor, has been the establishment of voluntary security standards within the DNA synthesis  industry; a project which has required both technical and policy expertise.

Who is the event relevant to?

Potential Stakeholders in a Regional Innovation Biochemical Security Network

Within our project we want to help foster discussions and partnerships in this issue area. One way in which we are doing this is through examining the feasibility of regional networks in biochemical security within the UK. The diagram below identifies many of the key potential stakeholders within such a network. The network could include those involved in developing and implementing laboratory or material safety and security policy, those who work with pathogens and toxins, those involved in ethics education for scientists, as well as scientists, social scientists and other stakeholders with an interest in identifying and responding to  current and future needs in Innovation Biochemical Security.  At our first meeting, we have a particular interest in inviting local level practitioners as well national and international level contact points. While many of these stakeholders  may already have institutional links there remains a requirement to assess and consider whether and how such links could be strengthened.

What could be the benefit of such networks?

Such networks could potentially serve a series of pragmatic purposes, including;

  • Sharing best practices
  • Fostering collaboration in the issue area
  • Strategic engagement with policy making at national and international level
  • Building research capacity in natural and social sciences in issue area
  • Education and awareness raising

Want more information?

We are holding the first of two meetings which will address the value and prospect of such networks on May 1st. The first meeting will take the form of a workshop which will involve representatives from the key stakeholders identified above.

If you are interested in attending, or have any questions or comments please contact Brett Edwards ( Please also feel free to explore our website at

Incapacitating Chemical Agents – Blurring the lines.

Image: Copyright OPCW

Image: Copyright OPCW

This week, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons hosts the Conference of State Parties.  This event brings together national representatives from all over the world, in order to ensure the implementation of the ban against the development, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. As was noted on the first day, in light of the recent atrocities in Syria, the responsibilities of those party to this convention also extends to the destruction of chemical weapon stockpiles as well as the support and treatment of victims of chemical weapons.

This year, there is a significant  attention from NGO groups to the issue of Incapaciating Chemical Agents or ICA’s.   ICA’s  are typically anaesthetic and sedative drugs, often delivered via aerosol, designed to render humans unconscious. The route of action in generally via the central nervous system, which means that the difference between subduing and killing is a matter of dosage. It has already been tragically demonstrated that controlling dose levels in operational contexts  is practically impossible. In the Moscow Theatre Hostage Crises in 2002, Russian security forces used an unknown aesthetic gas to subdue the hostage takers. The use of the agent resulted in the death of over 120 the hostages.

Concern about ICA’s is not limited to direct  and long term impact of the use of these weapons on human health.  There is also concern that the development and development  of these weapons by states also has the potential to undermine the norm against the use of chemical weapons in armed conflict.  This is often termed a ‘slippery slope’ type argument,  which is an approach to argumentation which is  associated with a tendency to focus on  bad outcomes, and ignore the intervening steps that lead to the outcome.  Such concerns are not farfetched however. For example,  currently the question of what counts as ‘legal law enforcement’ in a situation  where civil disorder borders on , and then turns into civil war, seems particularly challenging.  Such  ambiguity potentially has destabilising effects on local,  regional as well as international norms against the development and use of such weapons in military contexts.

At this weeks meeting at least three documents are being circulated by NGO’s on this issue area. The first is a policy paper produced by Dr Michael Crowley (University of Bradford) for the Biochemical Security 2030 Project based at the University of Bath. This paper makes a series of recommendations: (Full paper Available Here)

The international community’s response to advances in weapons-related science and technology has often been inadequate and late, introducing partial and ineffective controls (if any are introduced at all) long after a new weapons technology has spread to and been employed by State and non-State actors. With the issue of ICAs – because proliferation has been relatively limited – there is still time to act. There is now an opportunity for the OPCW to take a precautionary and preventative approach, and address the development and use of ICAs and related means of delivery. If the OPCW does not do so in the near future there is a danger that advances in relevant scientific disciplines together with current and potential future State research and development into ICAs and related means of delivery may lead to proliferation and misuse of such weapons.

Given such concerns, CWC States Parties both individually and collectively should consider the following activities and processes for addressing the regulation of ICAs and their means of delivery:

(a)    Affirm current national practice is to restrict use of toxic chemicals for law enforcement to riot control agents, and reaffirm the existing prohibition on the use of toxic properties of all chemicals in armed conflict

(b)   Introduce national moratoria on the development, stockpiling, transfer and use of ICAs and related means of delivery intended for law enforcement purposes

(c)    Initiate a mechanism within the OPCW to discuss the employment of ICAs in law enforcement

(d)   Utilize existing CWC consultation, investigation and fact-finding mechanisms when activities of potential concern are reported

(e)    Utilise the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) inter-sessional processes to explore science and technology developments of relevance to ICAs and related means of delivery.

In addition, the Director General and the Technical Secretariat should:

(a)    Develop appropriate verification mechanisms applicable to ICAs and their means of delivery

(b)   Monitor developments in science and technology applicable to ICAs and their means of delivery

(c)    Explore the implications of convergence in the life and chemical sciences for the development of ICAs and related means of delivery.

Finally, it is important that the non-governmental scientific community continue to be actively engaged on this issue, and specifically should:

(a)    Monitor developments in science and technology related to ICAs and their means of delivery and highlight attempts to harness such developments in weapons programmes

(b)   Engage with the OPCW, the BTWC States Parties and BTWC Implementation Support Unit (ISU) to develop and promote possible science-informed policy responses

(c)    Conduct education and awareness-raising amongst the life and chemical science communities on these issues.”

Likewise, the ICRC has also produced a position paper (available here), which in part draws upon an Expert meeting held in Montreux, Switzerland in April 2012 ( report available here).

Based on its assessment of the law and the risks, the ICRC calls on all States to:

‘•Take a policy decision, if they have not already done so, to limit the use of toxic chemicals as weapons for law enforcement purposes exclusively to riot control agents, as defined in the Chemical Weapons Convention;

•Enact national legislation, if they have not already done so, that limits the use of toxic chemicals as weapons for law enforcement purposes to riot control agents only and that prohibits the research, development, production, stockpiling and use of any toxic chemical as a weapon for law enforcement that does not fit the definition of a riot control agent specified in the Chemical Weapons Convention;

•Enact a national moratorium, pending the establishment of this national legislation, on the

research, development, production, stockpiling and use of any toxic chemical as a weapon for law enforcement that does not fit the definition of a riot control agent;

•Promote this national policy and legislative approach at the international level with the

aim of affirming an international prohibition, including at meetings of States Parties to the

Chemical Weapons Convention, the Biological Weapons Convention, and at international

human rights and drug control fora.’

 While there has been attention as well as support for addressing ambiguity around ICA’s, such as at the previous review conference, there has been little progress in terms of agreements. With this in mind it will be interesting to see the extent to which States Parties make moves on this issue in the run up to the next review conference.

Brett Edwards

Research Officer, Biochemical Security 2030 Project

Brett Edwards is a PhD candidate at the University of Bath.  His PhD examines the governance of dual-use aspects of the field of synthetic biology, within in the US and the UK. His PhD is Wellcome funded and Is part of a multi-university project entitled Building a Sustainable Capacity for Dual-use Bioethics.  Brett has also worked for 6-months as a research officer on a Foreign and Commonwealth Office funded project on S&T review within the  Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC). Recently, he  also completed a research fellowship  at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, which was funded by the Wellcome Trust.   Brett has a dual undergraduate background in Biology and Politics, and holds a MA in Biotechnological Law and Ethics (University of Sheffield, 2009).