Growing concern, rising awareness

Biotechnology & Biosecurity
Early-career scientists often have little exposure to the potentially harmful uses of chemistry and biology. An intensive workshop in Trieste, Italy – organised by OPCW, IAP and TWAS – is seeking to change that.

Young researchers often move into chemistry, biology and related fields with an implicit belief that their fields produce new knowledge for science and useful applications for society. However, they typically have little awareness that these beneficial sciences also can have darker uses as instruments for conflict and war.

A select group of early-career scientists from around the world convened in Trieste, Italy, this week for a high-level workshop that is exploring the dual-use technologies and responsible research practices in chemical and biological sciences. The workshop is managed by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), winner of the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize; the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP), which represents some 140 national and regional science academies; and The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), which works to advance science in the Global South.

This is the third workshop organised by the partners since 2016. It opened Monday 9 September and runs through Friday 13 September, featuring more than 40 participants and speakers from 25 countries, including 20 developing nations.

The Chemical Weapons Convention, which took effect in 1997, has been described as the world's most successful international disarmament treaty because of its high-impact efforts to eliminate an entire category of weapons of mass destruction. The OPCW oversees this work, backed by 193 member states.

Sergey Zinoviev, OPCW's senior officer for international cooperation, said in his opening remarks that policymakers, scientists and the public today all have a growing awareness of "the uses, or potential uses, of chemistry and biology for non-peaceful purposes".

Therefore, Zinoviev said, the workshop has two objectives: "to discuss with and seek advice and solutions from scientists on existing issues related to safety and security, and to disseminate the culture of responsibility and ethics and inform scientists about any possible issue related to their work. Both require an adequate awareness among  scientists about policy and their proactive role in policymaking."

IAP Coordinator Peter McGrath, who also manages the TWAS science diplomacy programme, underscored the point. He described surveys of young Pakistani scientists which found that, as students, they had rarely been exposed to the issues of dual-use technology, while faculty reported that they rarely taught the subject. But the responsible practice of science is a core theme in IAP's work.

"Working with OPCW and TWAS in hosting this workshop is part of our effort to raise awareness among young scientists of the potential harmful uses of research that need to be avoided," McGrath explained. "The goal is to guide young scientists towards the beneficial outcomes of their chemistry and biochemistry research."

The week-long workshop features lectures on the varied uses of chemistry and biology; science and security; codes of scientific conduct; and sustainability as a driver for the chemical industry. The agenda also includes an interactive workshop on the multiple uses of chemistry, and presentations on science diplomacy by several of the participants. There will be a field trip to the Trieste Fire Department to learn about preparations for handling chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidents, plus visits to the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) and the University of Trieste.

Peggy Oti-Boateng, director of Division of Science Policy and Capacity Building in UNESCO'S Natural Sciences Sector, identified a key theme: science has a responsibility to focus on peace and prosperity, but circumstances can press researchers to violate those values.

During World War I, "104 years ago, in 1915, the second battle of Ypres in Belgium marked the first use of poison gas as a weapon," Oti-Boateng said in a statement read in the workshop opening. "It was the result of co-operation of military and scientists – however, not to the benefit of mankind."

Citing the use of science to develop nuclear weapons, she added: "We all have to commit to ethical standards for a sustainable and responsible science. We owe this to the innumerable victims in the past."

Gaetano Carminati is a high-ranking officer in the Italian Navy and he has built deep expertise in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear risks. Today he serves as senior technical expert in the Italian National Authority for the Chemical Weapons Convention within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. In remarks at the opening session, Carminati emphasised that policymakers and scientists have converging interests in addressing risks.

Given the urgency of the issues, and the limited awareness among scientists in the developing world, further cooperative efforts are vitally important, said TWAS Executive Director Romain Murenzi.

"As we have gotten to know our colleagues at OPCW and have become familiar with their work, we are deeply impressed," Murenzi said. "And we recognise the importance of this work for chemists and other researchers in the Global South."

He added: "It could be highly beneficial to these young chemists, and perhaps others, if there were some sort of internship or course to provide them with a basic framework of understanding in chemical weapons, dual-use technologies and related areas.

"This would include instruction in the fundamental idea that chemistry should be used for peace, progress and prosperity."

This article was written by Edward W. Lempinen, TWAS' Public Information Officer, and originally published on TWAS' website.

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