Biologists Rarely Understand How Their Work Is Being Weaponized

Illustration for article titled Biologists Rarely Understand How Their Work Is Being Weaponized

Bioethicist Malcolm Dando has published a disturbing and well-researched editorial in this week's Nature magazine, about how biological research is being weaponized - and how poorly biologists understand the military implications of their work. Here's what he has to say.


Dando writes, in part:

At the 4th European Symposium on Non-Lethal Weapons in 2007, researchers from the Institute of Experimental Medicine and Charles University in Prague described the effects on macaque monkeys of combinations of drugs that produce a rapid loss of aggressive behaviour. They argued that the drugs could be "used to pacify aggressive people during ... terrorist attacks". The same researchers have also investigated methods of aerosol delivery to human volunteers.

Those who support the development of incapacitating agents often argue that using them in conflict situations stops people being killed. Historical evidence suggests otherwise. At the Nord-Ost siege, for instance, terrorists exposed to the fentanyl mixture were shot dead rather than arrested. Likewise, in Vietnam, the US military used vast quantities of CS gas - a 'non-lethal' riot-control agent - to increase the effectiveness of conventional weapons by flushing the Viet Cong out of their hiding places.
Blind to misuse

The lack of engagement with this issue among life scientists in general is alarming. Some companies are already marketing oxytocin on the back of studies showing that a nasal squirt of the hormone increases trust in humans. Even though the effectiveness of commercial sprays is doubtful, such research opens up the possibility of a drug that could be used to manipulate people's emotions in a military context. Discussions with more than 2,000 practising life scientists in 13 countries over the past few years have taught me that few have considered such possible uses of their work.

It's worth reading Dando's entire editorial - it's full of interesting facts about the use of biological weapons, as well as details about biologists who are currently complicit in weaponizing their neuroscience discoveries. It's one thing to consciously choose to create biological weapons, but Dando points out that one of the worst problems is scientists who never contemplate the military implications of their work. That's why his discussion above about oxytocin is so disturbing - these researchers never think about how their discoveries, in the wrong hands, might be used for torture, interrogation, or worse.

Biologists Napping While Work Militarized via Nature

Image by J. Field



I think this problem needs to be broken up into two issues:

1) Yes, scientists should be more aware of the implications of their work. To not think about such things is either laziness or purposeful ignorance.

2) There is always going to be research carried out that has results which could be used for violent or harmful purpose. Part of understanding something (like a biological system) involves knowing how it doesn’t work or what makes it stop working. Wanting to stop these kinds of results would basically mean stopping a huge amount of research (particularly medical research).

Basically, it’s important to hold scientist responsible for their results. It’s also important to hold the people misusing the results responsible. No one party can take all the blame when research is used for evil and we need better control or regulations for biological and chemical weapons. The final point the author makes , that "all use of novel non-lethal agents such as fentanyl for law enforcement should be prohibited, or at least heavily restricted" is spot on.