Adopting Codes of Conduct
One prominent proposal gaining momentum is the adoption of codes of conduct for bioscientists. Such codes would also apply to researchers in the private sector, yet, so far, industry has not engaged in the policy discussions.
The discussions on codes can be traced to a November 2001 White House statement endorsing a solid framework for bioscientists in the form of a code of ethical conduct that would have universal recognition.
This was reiterated shortly thereafter by John Bolton, the then Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, at the Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention, who said, a professional code of conduct for scientists working with pathogenic microorganisms [is critical and timely].
Discussions on the content, promulgation, and adoption of codes of conduct were completed in December 2005 by States Party to the Biological Weapons Convention.
A number of initiatives were taken on codes in between the 2001 statement and the 2005 discussions. The National Academy of Sciences, for example, suggested in its 2003 report Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism: Confronting the Dual-Use Dilemma that the nature of dual-use risks and the responsibilities of scientists should be outlined and added to the codes of ethics of relevant professional societies.
This could then be supplemented by a review of experiments involving biological agents that raise concern about their potential for misuse. The report identified seven experiments of concern, including those that would enhance the virulence of a pathogen and demonstrate how to render a vaccine ineffective. The review of experiments would be added on to the already established NIH system for reviewing recombinant DNA experiments through local institutional biosafety committees.
Other scientific organizations, including the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, the International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and the International Council for the Life Sciences, have also expressed support for codes of conduct.
The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) added concerns about the misuse of biological research to its code of ethics in April 2005. ASM members are now obligated to discourage any use of microbiology contrary to the welfare of humankind, including the use of microbes as biological weapons and will call to the attention of the public or the appropriate authorities misuses of microbiology or of information derived from microbiology.
Individual scientists have also expressed support for codes of conduct, most notably Margaret Somerville and Ronald Atlas who published their own code of ethics for the life sciences in a March 2005 issue of Science.
Most prominent among medical organizations supporting codes of conduct have been the World Medical Association, the American Medical Association, and the British Medical Association. The American Medical Association has drawn up a set of guidelines to prevent the malevolent use of biomedical research, in which physician researchers are asked to assess foreseeable ramifications before they participate in research to balance the promise of benefit from biomedical innovation against potential harms from corrupt application of the findings.
Various intergovernmental organizations have also supported codes of conduct. These include UNESCO; the OECD, which has set up a website to provide an active resource of global information on oversight mechanisms, particularly codes of conduct for the biosciences research community; and the International Committee of the Red Cross, which calls on the scientific and medical communities and industry to adopt professional and industrial codes of conduct aimed at preventing the abuse of biological agents.