The Royal Society hosted a Roundtable meeting on dual use education and awareness raising in neuroscience on Friday 16 March. The meeting was intended to follow up on aspects of the recent Brain Waves 3: Neuroscience, conflict and security report, but specifically looked at the recommendation that ‘there needs to be fresh effort by the appropriate professional bodies to inculcate the awareness of the dual-use challenge among neuroscientists’.

The roundtable attendees noted that the neurosciences have great potential in terms of restoring and enhancing human cognition; however, the same technologies are dual use and could also be used to incapacitate combatants, degrade the performance of an enemy or disrupt neurological functions such as memory, trust or mood. The ability to incapacitate could be seen as potentially fulfilling a valuable strategic role in the asymmetrically orientated ‘new wars’ of the 21st century and already there are examples, such as the Moscow theatre siege in 2002, in which so-called ‘non-lethal weapons’ have been used. However, the development of a safe incapacitating agent is not technically feasible in the foreseeable future and is likely to have significant long term ramifications for international arms control regimes and broader norms prohibiting the use of chemical and biological weapons.

Dealing with the challenge of the hostile exploitation of neurobiology, as with a number of developments in the life sciences and chemistry, is going to require a range of activities at different levels; one aspect of which involves building awareness of the concerns of the security community amongst those at the forefront of research in this area. This process serves a number of purposes, not least of which in providing future scientists with the capacity to recognise -and respond in a more informed manner- to dual use challenges. This has been identified as an issue in two converging disarmament treaties, the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. Neurobiology falls between these two conventions, both of which have recently embarked on a renewed effort to wrestle with education and awareness raising through an education working group in the CWC, and the agreement to treat education as one of a number of annual topics in the BWC. Yet to date, in both cases, calls for greater action in education and awareness raising at the international level have not yet resulted in significant action at the level of practising scientists, despite a number of progressive initiatives by NGOs and academics.

At the level of life science educators, this can in part be attributed to some of the practical challenges faced in integrating material on security into busy science courses, but is also likely to reflect a broad sense that security is irrelevant or less relevant compared with a number of other topics competing for attention. At the level of governments, there have been some successes notably in Japan and Pakistan; however, several other initiatives have been slow and in some cases dwindled due to problems in gaining traction amongst the wider scientific community.

Nonetheless, a ‘fresh effort’ is overdue. Future efforts must both incentivise and engage the scientific community as part of the solution, not as part of the problem. It is important to look at how the issue of dual use can be assimilated within broader professional training for scientists in the university curricula in a manner which is both holistic and sustainable; thereby equipping students to become responsible scientists capable of engaging with a range of ethical and societal issues. There are a number of other complementary interventions that could also be exploited, building on what has worked elsewhere. Examples include law enforcement outreach to scientists, an approach employed in an FBI outreach program in the US; the insertion of materials on security and safety in core text books for science courses; and working through scientific societies, such as the International Neuroethics Society. The employment of a number of mutually reinforcing activities could serve to episodically strengthen the development of a culture of responsibility.