Thursday, November 30, 2006

So it's been too long again... Oh well, that sort of thing happens when you're busy. But I've got loads of stuff to write about, perhaps a bit retrospective, but you'll still get all the news, just later rather than sooner, if you catch my drift...
First I've got a little article for y'all to read:
A couple of weeks ago I went to my first Cafe Scientifique in Bath. For those who have never heard of the concept it's a world wide scheme based on the French cafe culture, based around the informal way philosophers and artists like Picasso, Sartre and Beauvoir used to sit and discuss the great problems of existentialism and what not. This informal exchange of ideas allows a free and unrestricted way of talking about things between people with all kinds of backgrounds. The theme for Cafe Scientifque is perhaps is not surprising - science. There are many, many different topics - check out the website for details on the nearest event to you.
The event in Bath is in a really nice pub called the Raven - actually it's the pub of the year. They serve a marvellous Merlot and cook delicious food as well. But most importantly it is the host for the Cafe Scientifique.
On the evening of Monday the 13th of November the speaker was James Randerson, The Guardian science correspondent who authored the front page article ‘Revealed: the lax laws that could allow assembly of deadly virus DNA’ (16/10/2006). I think I should just mention that Mr. Randerson is actually a Doctor Randerson, as in PhD in Evolutionary Genetics (which he happened do at Bath University). Anyway, in his report Randerson showed how small segments of the genetic blue print (oligonucleotides or oligos in ‘science slang’) for smallpox could be purchased from companies who produce DNA segments. The report resulted in a public enquiry as to whether this technology should be more restricted. Randerson, himself, had his sample of DNA smallpox sent to his very own flat (much to his girlfriend’s horror, we were told at the Raven).
The title of the talk posed the question ‘Is scientific openness fostering bio-terror?’. As usual during a Cafe Scientifique event the guest speaker talks for no longer than 30 minutes, which is then followed by a lively (and sometimes rather heated, but always polite) debate between the speaker and the audience.

Randerson is not the first to question the safety in recreating virus that has long been extinct. The New Scientist has published quite a few articles on the same theme, notably on the level of safety in the labs that the various dangerous viruses are stored. For Randerson, though, the issue isn't so much about storage, he asks the much more basic question as to whether scientists should just because they could. The crux of Randerson’s argument was that even though “Intellectual freedom and sharing of information are central to scientific progress, and any restrictions on that will make science harder to do and could limit society's access to future medicines “, he still asks whether there should be “restrictions on who has access to the materials and equipment that can be used to make viruses in the future, and are the scientific benefits of resurrecting a strain of flu that killed more people than the First World War worth the risks?”
During the debate that followed it was widely recognised that there are limits to what legislation can do. The consensus was that to some extent researchers and research institutions should legislate themselves, perhaps by signing some kind of anti-terror declaration. This type of self-legislation could create an awareness around the potential dangers involved in the day-to-day research that most biology students and staff deem safe.

Although I think that that's very much in the academic spirit and all, then there's currently a slight problem with implementing such a lassez-faire approach. Namely, due to another article in the Guardian ("Universities urged to spy on Muslims" 16/10/2006) where it leaked a document sent out by the Department of Education which stated that it wanted Higher Education Institutions ( HEI - such as universities) to keep an eye on Muslim students (!!!).

Now I can't really see how that would work together with a "self-legislative" attitude. Something smells very fishy to me, it smells of Hitler's Germany to me, where everybody tells on everybody else, just to be on the safe side and in return no one feels safe and nothing gets done. So perhaps academia should just be left to its own devices and instead the HEI could be used to create a debate about the types of chemicals, tissues, and other biological artefacts are available to them, what they are used for, why they are used and indeed be there to educate people in general about safety. I think that would make people feel much more safe. Another thing could be to look at how other countries deal with this particular situation. I know that in Denmark they have an anti-bio terror unit, which specialises in bio attacks if and when they should happen, rather like a Fire brigade. But when I suggested this idea, at the Cafe Scientifique, Randerson seem to think that prevention was better than minimisation of damage. Well, of course, I agree with that, but on the other hand he also admitted that if someone was going to do it, they could do it whether or not there was self-legislation, government legislation and so forth. This is why I suggest, create a debate, make people (and especially the companies supplying the goods) aware and educate about how it can be avoided. But definitely not by creating some kind of watchdog culture, that just breeds more hatred (hence more attacks) and more insecurity for all parties involved.

And that's my 2 cents worth!

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