The Ethics of “Biosecurity”

An ominous new word has crept into the life sciences and biomedical research: “biosecurity.” The term reflects a growing awareness that rapid developments in these fields offer the potential for great benefits, but that the knowledge, tools, and techniques that enable scientific advances also can be misused to cause deliberate harm.

Any effort to address this “dual use” dilemma must ultimately be international, since biotechnology research is a genuinely global enterprise. The international scientific community has a key role to play in ensuring that efforts to manage the risks improve security and strengthen international collaboration to ensure non- maleficent use of scientific advances.

Professor Ronald Atlas of the University of Louisville and I recently presented a proposed Code of Ethics for the Life Sciences in the journal Science . Our proposal what we need for a code and for its contents have both met with strongly conflicting views. The scientific community increasingly recognizes that science itself is not a value-free activity and, therefore, the choice of what research to undertake and how to undertake it must be governed by ethical principles. But there is still a nucleus of scientists who oppose that concept, arguing that there must be no restrictions on the search for new knowledge, and that ethical principles only become relevant in the application of that knowledge.

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