Sunday, 22 October 2017

Scientific Responsibility: Malicious Intent of Dual-Use Research

'I made one great mistake in my life when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt that atomic bombs be made.." – Albert Einstein five months before his death in 1954.

 He first discovered E=mc2, the formular behind bomb making. But bombs were not what he had in mind when he published this equation in 1905. The US had gone ahead to drop “Fat Man” an atomic bomb made from Plutonium and “Little Boy” an atomic bomb made from Uranium in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan resulting to at least 250,000 deaths besides defects.

In 1936, Gerhard Schrader, a 33-year-old German chemist working at IG Farben, a chemical conglomerate, had been tasked with developing new insecticides to prevent insect pests from depleting food supply in Germany. He failed –at least to his employers. Instead of killing only pests, his ‘poison’(an extremely toxic chemical substance) was causing vomiting, pupil dilation and death  among other symptoms in apes and other mammals. This chemical substance later came to be known as Tabun (from Tabu, German for taboo). He later developed Sarin (a highly toxic synthetic, colourless, odourless liquid ) which was ten times more potent than Tabun.

Sarin was first used as a chemical weapon in 1988 during the Iran-Iraq war in the Kurdish town of Halabja, killing 5000 people. In 2013 its use during the Syrian Civil War killed up to 426 children besides adults.

Biological threats are on the increase worldwide. According to the US Department of Homeland Securitya biological attack is the intentional release of a pathogen (disease causing agent) or biotoxin (poisonous substance produced by a living organism) against humans, plants, or animals. An attack against people could be used to cause illness, death, fear, societal disruption, and economic damage.”
The Blue Ribbon Study panel on Biodefense, a privately funded group expressed its concerned about biological threats from virtual terrorists – who are able to put together online the bio-ingredients to build deadly pathogens that can be used as weapons. Detecting these biological agents is tough while production is cheap including simple unleashing mechanisms with enough time to escape.

Dual Use Research
The common denominator among the above mentioned instances is that the intention to pursue legitimate research. But what they had not imagined initially was the possibility for their legitimate work to be misused against humanity. Those notable scientists had really not thought out that the methods needed to make biological, chemical or nuclear weapons are similar to those required to pursue legal research. But we can clearly see how the misuse of lawful scientific studies has created serious problems that threaten even human existence. Hence, any research with the potential to be used for evil intentions is thus of dual-use. It is therefore of great importance for scientists to be aware of the dangers of engaging in research of dual-use.

 The Federation of American Scientists argues that besides having moral obligation to prevent the misapplication of their research, scientists are in the best position to figure out and evaluate the potentials for misuse.

Taking responsibility of your research in this manner should help shield you from becoming a possible future target of prosecution or tagged as the man (J. R Oppenheimer) who helped to develop the atomic bomb when the bombs where tested remarked, "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds".

Remember, Albert Einstein discovered E=mc2 –a formular used to develop the bombs that killed more 250,000 lives in Japan, (which wasn’t his intention) forty years later. Gerhard Schrader in 1936 never knew that his ‘failed’ pest poison would be used to kill innocent civilians in Syria, eighty-one years later in 2017.