Building capacity in dual use bioethics: biosecurity education for life scientists

 

Recent advances in life sciences and biotechnology have brought greater medical benefits but they have also been the focus of increasing concern about their potential misuse. One answer to the problem is to educate life scientists to appreciate their own ethical responsibilities. Tatyana Novossiolova and Simon Whitby of Bradford University describe their online bioethics education programme.

 

The 1975 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) added to the ban on use of biological weapons embodied in the 1925 Geneva Protocol. Article I of the Convention bans an entire class of weapons as follows:

Each State Party to this Convention undertakes never in any circumstances to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain:


1. Microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes...1

 

Whilst banning hostile misuse, a so-called ‘general purpose criterion’ that is embodied in the above Article ensures that life sciences are used only for beneficent purposes. Yet, the rapid advance of life sciences and biotechnology over the past few decades has raised significant concerns, not least because whilst such advances have the potential to bring considerable benefits to humankind through responding to human, environmental and societal challenges, they could also be exploited for malevolent purposes, something evidenced in a number of large-scale offensive biological warfare programmes carried out by major states in the century. Dealing with this newly-emerged challenge, which has been conceptualised as ‘dual-use dilemma’2 therefore requires a number of different responses.

Since the 9/11 events, the anthrax attacks in December 2001, the creation of Homeland Security and the securitization of US Public Health, a number of so-called experiments of concern including the creation of Mousepox, the reconstruction of Spanish Influenza and the synthetic production of Polio Virus, have become paradigm cases in a new debate that is characterised by a convergence between biosecurity, bioethics and life science communities. Thus, within the wider context of beyond the laboratory door biosecurity, a discourse on dual-use bioethics has emerged contributing to a new area of applied ethics. A central theme of this discourse is extending the culture of responsibility in life-science so as to accommodate new security challenges and biosecurity concerns. Building upon this discourse, the Bradford Disarmament Research Centre has developed an expert-level online distance-learning Train-the-Trainer Module in Applied Dual-Use Biosecurity in order to facilitate efficient and effective engagement across a range of life-science constituencies worldwide. In addition, we are developing a programme of work regarding the identification, articulation and formalisation of Bioethics and Biosecurity Professional Competency Standards; and, through the creation and development and ongoing support for a Bioethics and Biosecurity Professional Competency Standards Register and Network. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to elaborate on the rationale behind the idea of developing the Train-the-Trainer Programme and give an overview of the module contents, objectives and resource implications. The paper concludes by suggesting how the growing momentum behind the inclusion of dual-use bioethics/biosecurity training may translate into a legally-binding obligation at the 7th Review Conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention in 2011.

...the very same technology or knowledge that can lead to important breakthroughs in science and thus promote human health and welfare could also be applied for hostile ends including bioterrorism and biowarfare.

Dual-Use Dilemma and Biosecurity

Dual-use dilemma arises in the context of life sciences when well-intentioned scientific research has the potential to be misused by state and non-state actors for nefarious purposes3. By design, it is an ethical dilemma since the very same technology or knowledge that can lead to important breakthroughs in science and thus promote human health and welfare could also be applied for hostile ends including bioterrorism and biowarfare. Moreover, it is an ethical dilemma for the individual researcher arising due to the potential actions of others4. In other words, it works on the assumption that while life scientists conduct their research with good intentions on mind, there are other actors who may presumably take advantage of the results of their work and use them to cause harm and destruction.

The publication of several high-profile experiments, such as the Mousepox study, the reconstruction of the Spanish Flu virus and the synthetic assemblage of Polio virus in prominent international scientific journals (e.g. Science, Nature, Journal of Virology) has spurred a wide-ranging debate on how dual-use research should be treated and to what extent researchers should be held responsible for the possible misuse of their knowledge. The emerging discourse on dual-use dilemma, bioethics and biosecurity has been further facilitated by a number of high-level reviews, including the Fink Committee Report ‘Biotechnology Research in an Age of Bioterrorism’, the Lemon-Relman Report ‘Globalisation, Biosecurity and the Future of Life Sciences’ and various NASBB reports and recommendations; by the changing policy of funders of life sciences (e.g. Wellcome Trust) according to which applicants are now required to consider whether their proposed research raises any dual-use concerns; by the Statement on Scientific Publication and Security made by leading publishers and journal editors in 20035.

It is worth noting that current concerns about dual use are being discussed in the context of a distinctly new phenomenon, namely, a convergence between security concerns and the practice of life scientists in what might be termed a novel biosecurity problem. However, the term biosecurity as related to dual-use science requires some conceptual unpacking. Traditionally, laboratory biosecurity refers to the safety of materials (including dangerous pathogens) and measures taken to minimise the risk that dangerous materials might be used with malign intent. While we see laboratory biosecurity as part of biosecurity, for us the term has a much wider meaning related to the concept of a web of preventive policies centred on the prohibition of the misuse of life sciences embodied in the General Purpose Criterion of the BTWC. Thus, biosecurity is the objective of the whole range of policies, mechanisms, regulations and initiatives that are designed to prevent life sciences from being used for hostile purposes, including export controls, bio-defence, and national implementation of the BTWC.

One possible explanation of why life scientists are uninformed of biosecurity issues is that such issues do not feature in their university education.

 

Education Gap

One of the essential ingredients in ensuring that the life sciences continue to generate great benefits and do not become subject to misuse for hostile purposes is a process of engagement between scientists and the security community and the development of strong ethical and normative frameworks to compliment legal and regulatory measures that are being developed by states. Unfortunately, to date engagement amongst practising life scientists on the issues of dual-use or ethical responsibilities has been limited. Indeed contributions from ethicists on dual-use are also conspicuously absent from the new biosecurity discourse. After carrying out a series of interactive seminar discussions in 16 different countries with a several thousand life scientists in over 110 different departments, we discovered that there was little evidence that our participants6:

1. regarded bioterrorism or bioweapons as a substantial threat;
2. considered that developments in life-sciences research contributed to biothreats;
3. were aware of the current debates and concerns about dual-use research; or
4. were familiar with the BTWC.

One possible explanation of why life scientists are uninformed of biosecurity issues is that such issues do not feature in their university education. This is as result of a variety of factors including the lack of expertise and access to necessary resources, and the lack of space on a very crowded timetable in the modern life science curricula. We then decided to survey the extent of biosecurity university degree courses in Europe. Using a sample of 142 courses from 57 universities in 29 countries speaking 25 different languages, we looked for evidence of biosecurity modules, bioethics modules and biosafety modules, as well as for references to biosecurity, the BTWC, arms control, dual use and codes of conduct. Our research suggested that only 3 out of 57 universities identified in the survey currently offered some form of specific biosecurity module and in all cases this was optional for students. Similar results were found in surveys in Israel and in the Asia-Pacific Region.

 

Bridging the Education Gap

Our first attempt to bridge the existing gap in the education of life scientists in regard to biosecurity issues has been the development of a Dual-Use Biosecurity Education Module Resource (EMR). The EMR consists of 21 lectures, each with 20 PowerPoint slides and notes for the lecturer, and direct links to the references used via the web. Each lecture also has some suggested essay questions and the EMR has an introduction to all the material for lecturers and a number of Briefing Papers cover material that would be less familiar to life scientists. The whole set of lectures are currently available in English, Japanese, Russian and French with equivalent versions in other languages being translated.

Working in a fully supported online learning community, participants are able to communicate and interact with peers, developing their practice through sustained reflection and involvement in a range of activities and scenarios.

Having developed an extensive educational resource, our next goal was to facilitate efficient and effective engagement across a range of life-science constituencies worldwide. In order to fulfil this ambitious undertaking, we developed an expert-level online distance-learning Train-the-Trainer Module in Applied Dual-Use Biosecurity. The module is unique insofar as it combines both a practical and a philosophical approach to the issues of dual use and biosecurity. In practical terms the module comprises of 20 Power Point Presentations (Lectures) and 22 expert-level group-work seminar scenarios. In order to maximise its global dissemination amongst the life science community, the Train-the-Trainer module utilises a range of interactive web-based e-learning platforms including Blackboard (VLE), Elluminate and Ning. Whilst there is a focus on real-world dual-use life-science dilemmas, the philosophical element of the module seeks to facilitate the appraisal and review of ethical approaches of relevance to biosecurity, the extent to which they resolve ethical questions, and the extent to which they provide a defence for ethical decisions or recommendations regarding the dilemmas in question.

We are currently delivering two versions of the Train-the-Trainer online distance-learning module: a 20-credit module and a 6-week certified short course. Working in a fully supported online learning community, participants are able to communicate and interact with peers, developing their practice through sustained reflection and involvement in a range of activities and scenarios. Members are encouraged to bring their own ideas and experiences to the course, sharing these with peers to contextualise their knowledge and understanding in ways that will help them, as life science professionals, to meet the ethical challenges thrown up by dual use. Participants benefit from a supportive and interactive online web-based learning community and work both independently to produce a coursework assignment, as well as in online groups to produce a significant group-work course assignment.

So far our work has been guided by a potentially significant role for the rapid establishment of networks in different countries and regions in helping to quickly close the education gap. Through the development and support for an expanding network of practitioners, and with novel means of dissemination, the latter will facilitate the further dissemination of research on dual-use bioethics and biosecurity and contribute to a much needed cultural change in life science education and practice. A step that will undoubtedly facilitate such a cultural change is to identify, articulate and formalise a set of Bioethics and Biosecurity Professional Competency Standards, which in turn will allow the creation and support for a Bioethics and Biosecurity Professional Competency Standards Register and Network.

 

Conclusion

Our experience so far with the Applied Dual-Use Bioethics/Biosecurity Online Distance Learning Train-the-Trainer programmes clearly demonstrates that life scientists can be trained online on dual use and can be encouraged to assimilate dual use into the training of others. As noted by Whitby and Dando prior to the Sixth Review Conference in 2006:

A fundamental conclusion … is that in depth implementation of the BTWC within States Parties requires a significant effort on education and outreach for such implementation to be effective.

Our work reinforces this conclusion and it is evident that one of the most effective steps that could be agreed by the Seventh Review Conference would be an agreement that each State Party in implementing Article IV of the Convention shall carry out an extensive education and outreach programme amongst all those engaged in the life sciences, whether in academia, industry or government. We would urge the adoption of a National Implementation Action plan at the Seventh Review Conference that includes as an essential integral element the requirement to carry out such an education and awareness programme7.

 

Tatyana Novossiolova is a Research Associate at Bradford Disarmament Research Centre (BDRC), Division of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, UK

Simon Whitby PhD, Research Councils UK-sponsored Senior Research Fellow and the Director of Bradford Disarmament Research Centre (BDRC), University of Bradford, UK.

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1 Full Text of the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention available at http://www.opbw.org/ (last accessed 21/01/11)
2 Michael Selgelid, 'Dual-Use Reserch Codes of Conduct: Lessons from Life Sciences', Nanoethics, vol.3 (2009) pp.175-183
3 ibid
4 Seumas Miller and Michael Selgelid, 'Bioterrorism and the Dual-Use Dilemma' in 'Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism: Ethics and Liberal Democracy', Oxford: Blackwell Publishing 2009, p.183
5 See Journal Editors and Authors Group, 'Uncensored Exchange of Scientific Results', PNAS, vol.100, no.4 (2003)
6 Malcolm Dando and Brian Rappert 'Codes of Conduct for Life Sciences: Some Insights from UK Academia', Briefing Paper no.16 (2nd series), University Bradford, May 2005, available at www.brad.ac.uk/acad/sbtwc (last accessed on 1/11/2010); see also Brian Rappert 'Biotechnology, Security and the Search for Limits: An Inquiry into Research and Methods', Basintoke: Palgrave (2007); and Brian Rappert 'Experimental Secrets: International Security, Codes, and the Future of Research', University Press of America (2009)
7 Simon Withby and Malcolm Dand 'Effective Implementation of the BTWC: The Key Role of Awareness Raising and Education', Strenghtening the Biological Weapons Convention: Review Conference Paper No.26, University of Bradford (November 2010), p.14

 

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