The Scientific Response to Terrorism

The Scientific Response to Terrorism

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee Inquiry into the scientific response to terrorism. I have compiled this response with the Research Officer, Dr Marc Rands, and with the assistance of Fellows with expertise in this area.

The response to terrorist threats by chemical, biological or radiological attack must have a firm scientific basis and justification. Sir William Stewart (former President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh) addressed the British Association in Glasgow on 5 September 2001, and raised the problem of bioterrorism. He deplored the run down of the UK's microbiology capability and questioned whether the UK was prepared for bioterrorism. In this context he also noted that the Foot and Mouth crisis emphasised the difficulties that could arise when an animal disease gets out of control in a population, commenting that the implications of its effect go far beyond the farm gate and the countryside.

Bioterrorism knows no boundaries and can come in, not just through London and New York, but also through Scotland and Canada. There has to be a scientifically well thought through and co-ordinated plan for the whole of the UK, including Scotland. Bugs do not stop at Hadrian's wall. The research base has to be strengthened and a focus given to modelling, vaccine production and a strengthening of the chemistry base.

Although the Committee's remit is expressly directed to the areas of chemical, biological and radiological (CBR) terrorism, one of the primary aims of most terrorist groups and organizations is to cause the maximum damage possible in human, economic or both terms by whatever means possible. A corollary of this is to maximize the effect of any attack in causing public and official alarm and anxiety. These comments, therefore, will be relevant to other modes of terrorism as well.

The specific questions identified by the Inquiry are addressed below:

How countermeasures against biological, chemical and radiological terrorism are informed by science and technology

The majority of pathogens that have properties which make them attractive potential biological weapons occur naturally in many countries. To a determined individual, they could be introduced to Britain. Propagating and weaponising anthrax spores only requires basic microbiological knowledge of the sort possessed by junior laboratory technicians (MLSOs in hospital diagnostic laboratories), and simple equipment. Appropriate growth media and spore suspension stabilizers (weaponizing agents) were described in detail in the scientific literature in the early 1950’s. For these reasons, countermeasures can only reduce, rather than remove, the risk of an attack.

Scientists can have obvious roles in determining the nature of the material or device used by the terrorists; advising on countermeasures, both immediate and long term; advising on the identification, diagnosis and treatment of people affected; if necessary, conducting urgent research in relation to these points; assisting and/or participating in contacts with the media; and predicting any further novel forms of terrorist attack which might be possible, together with suggestions for countermeasures against and management of such an attack. As far as possible, the policy adopted should be pro-active, so as to reduce the risk of a particular form of attack occurring, or to ensure a rapid response and to minimise the effects of any attack which occurs.

The Government establishments at Porton Down, Harwell, the Public Health Laboratory Service and the National Radiation Protection Board already draw on advice and assistance from specific scientists acting as advisors, consultants or for items of contract research. Many of the scientists concerned already have a security clearance and are subject to the provisions of the Official Secrets Act. It is probable that the pool of expertise called is at present, adequate, however, additional expertise may be required to deal with novel methods of attack. There are, in addition, scientists who are members of the armed forces reserves and the size and scope of the scientific intelligence establishment in the reserve forces could be increased.

How the surveillance of dangerous chemicals and pathogens is coordinated, both nationally and internationally, and what policies are in place to respond

The overall control of the storage and handling of dangerous and/or toxic materials is vested in the Health and Safety Executive. There are additional bodies (e.g. National Radiation Protection Board (NRPB)) with responsibility in specific specialized areas. These bodies, however, can only supervise at a distance, with periodic on site visits. On-site responsibility rests with the Institute or Company Safety Officer and with departmental Safety Representatives. At all levels the concerns have, until now, been for the safety of persons having to work with the materials and with the safe storage and containment of any risk. Terrorism is likely to present two novel problems in that risk evaluation and working practices in areas likely to be of interest to terrorists. These areas will need to be safeguarded against theft or misuse of material, devices, or equipment and inappropriate obtaining of intellectual property in the form of records or by observation or verbal communication.

In terms of national and international surveillance policies, a recent article concerning the US bioterrorist anthrax attacks in 2001 commented that "the anthrax cases highlighted the importance of the ‘golden triangle’ of response between clinicians and clinical microbiologists, the health-care delivery system, and public health officials" (Emerging Infectious Diseases, 8 1013-1014, 2001). An opinion different in detail but identical in principle also emerged as a strong consensus from the many inquiries into the 2001 GB Foot and Mouth Disease Outbreak.

However, there is a big difference between the UK and US responses regarding resources. The US Centre for Disease Control has been given over $918M "for State and local health departments… strengthen capacity to respond to bioterrorism, other infectious disease emergencies, and other public health threats." In contrast, the UK has no published plans for additional resources to be made available to public health departments or medical microbiology laboratories to enhance infectious disease surveillance or their ability to respond to emergencies and other events. The RSE welcomes, however, the development of the national Health Protection Agency as a way of co-ordinating any response to these threats, and notes with pleasure that Sir William Stewart is to be President of the Health Protection Agency, and chairman of the NRPB.

The public communications policy on the threat and response to biological, chemical and radiological terrorism

The question of public communication policy involves competing requirements:

  • What should be communicated to the people and organizations most concerned on a 'need to know' basis, so that they are adequately prepared in the event of an attack
  • What should be communicated to the public at large so as to make them aware of the situation and the measures being or to be taken and allay unnecessary anxiety;
  • How should it be communicated;
  • What should be withheld from the people and organizations most concerned on grounds of security;
  • What should be withheld from the public at large on grounds of security or to minimize the risk of unnecessary panic or other inappropriate responses.
  • Deciding on the correct balance is a difficult matter and must involve politicians, the relevant public services, (e.g. the Police, NHS, Fire Service), and the media as well as the scientific community.

The role of scientists should be:

  • To provide expert assessment, briefing and advice to government, security services and appropriate senior representatives of the armed services and public services;
  • To provide expert briefing and advice to the people and organizations most concerned.
  • To be prepared to appear in the media and give an account of a threat or of the nature of an attack, the scientific basis for the measures adopted, and advice to individuals or communities. The scientists selected for such a role must be able to explain possibly complex facts and arguments clearly, briefly and unambiguously to all members of the general public. The presentation must avoid causing undue panic.

In the event of an attack, there will be a need to communicate quickly and reliably. A suitable web site (possibly in multiple languages) is a possible tool, with details and advice being prepared in advance in the background. However, when a web site suddenly receives very large numbers of hits, it can 'freeze'. Therefore some investigation will need to be carried on out how best to ensure that web sites will remain reliably operational in the event of massive numbers of enquiries.

What research relevant to chemical, biological and radiological threats is being undertaken in the UK, and what controls are placed on it

The prime target of any terrorist attempt to obtain CBR material or 'know how', will be in the scientific environment. Government laboratories and establishments and large industrial companies already have a policy over their security; this being centrally coordinated in the case of government facilities. The weak point at presentwould appear to be in the Universities and Colleges. There are intrinsic difficulties in dealing with this aspect of surveillance and security. Academic institutions are by their very nature open and cosmopolitan establishments. Excessive secrecy is inimical to both academic teaching and research. This particularly applies at a post-graduate level, where the members of a research team, both pre-doctoral and post-doctoral, may be drawn from many countries. Individual senior scientists and academic administrators should not be expected to carry out vetting of prospective students or staff on other than purely academic grounds. Neither should there be a policy at local level of excluding scientists, whether students, junior academics or senior academics on grounds of nationality, religion or political persuasion. Similar limitations should also apply to technical, administrative and other members of staff.

In many instances, individual scientists or scientific teams may be unaware of the potential utility of all or part of their equipment or work may be of possible utility to terrorists. It would, however, be likely to prove counter-productive should the security services be seen to be interested in particular scientists, departments, or universities, colleges or research institutes. Advice on security would probably be best channelled through a third party, such as the HSE. At local level, such advice would be passed on to College Principals, Heads of Department, and/or Departmental and University or College Safety Officers. This could be carried out either as part of routine Safety Courses or during a safety inspection.

The need for an ethical code of conduct for scientists working with dangerous substances or pathogens

Most scientists are only too well aware of their duty to their fellow beings. There is already an all embracing ethos in the scientific community regarding their mission to increase knowledge for the benefit of humankind. No ethical code of conduct will deter the occasional rogue scientist. As it is impossible to know which field of science might be of interest to terrorists in the future, any ethical code must apply to all of science rather than to a few specific areas. The enforcement of any ethical conduct could be served by the peer review process, and the knowledge which the specialist professional bodies and societies have of their fellow workers and their research.


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