The military, law enforcement, neuroscience and neurotechnology
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Science for Biophysics HOMEPAGE

12th June, 2012.

by Helen Gavaghan

Malcolm Dando is a professor of International Security at the University of Bradford. Though retired he is still professionally active internationally. He is a Ph.D biologist turned social scientist, who, for more than a decade, has been an important voice of scientific knowledge within Bradford's Department of Peace Studies.

I interviewed professor Dando earlier this year because he was one of a working group tasked by the Royal Society of London with reviewing military and law-enforcement related interest in neuroscience and neurotechnology. Called "Neuroscience, conflict and security", The Royal Society published their findings on 7th February 2012.

Why publish my write up of this interview now? Because we are coming up to the Olympics, when, we are told, security concerns are deeply important, and because of turmoil in the Middle East, because of ongoing fascination with bird flu, and preparations for the next review conference of the CWC.

Professor Dando has an internationally authoritative voice of expertise among those with professional interest in the chemical weapons convention (CWC), and in the biological and toxin weapons convention (BTWC). Both treaties are denizens of the world of Arms Control, but in the case of the CWC have entanglement with law enforcement. With advances in science there is increasing overlap between the two treaties. "The CWC," said professor Dando, "will have to look at non proliferation, and will be in the same position as the BWC, because chemicals can now be made biologically."

Possibly the first time I interviewed Professor Dando was a decade ago, as I worked on background for a write-up of a meeting about the BTWC, which I covered from Vienna for Science.

This February's meeting was mediated by the press offices of the Royal Society and Bradford University. The latter kindly found us a large imposing room, where we chatted for more than an hour.

The military and law enforcement's interest in neuroscience lies in finding ways to enhance performance or to degrade an opponent's capability. Because the concept of the blood-brain barrier is important in any report about neuroscience and neurotechnology I asked Professor Dando if he could find me an accessible explanation he would be happy for me to cite. He located a simple explanation on the website of The University of Manchester.

Link no longer accessible. [Accessed 12th June, 2012. For some time after publication the reference was accessible via the link I made from this article. It is not now. I made no alteration to the link.].

The explanation makes sense. Endothelial capillary cells, closely packed physically, and with high electrical resistance, provide a physical and chemical barrier against unwanted ionic intruders travelling via the blood stream into the brain's delicate neurochemistry and biology. Limited brain areas, such as the posterior pituitary, with a need for chemical communication with the body, do not have a blood-brain barrier. With those basics out of the way, we were able to shelve the issue with no need for further exploration.

As we talked Professor Dando took charge, clearly wishing to do so, and I decided not to oppose him, even though I had read the report from the Royal Society and had some specific questions. His message was, in part, about the Royal Society's work, and partly about his views of the current state of CWC and BTWC talks and status

Looking today at my notes I see I have recorded keywords like "passaging bird flu through ferrets", "data and international security", "misuse of biology", "data redactions", "openness in science", "only chemicals used were for riot control purposes", "verifiable ban", the latter being in the context of the BTWC. All you need do is Google these terms to see they are indicative of live science policy issues. I also circled "2013 next review conference of CWC".

During our interview professor Dando said he wanted to see greater compatibility between the BWC and CWC, given the increasing overlap between these two fields of science. Currently the CWC has a large infrastructure supporting its aims. The BWC does not. That asymmetry exists because, the CWC had a clear purpose to remove chemical weapons.

Bird flu kept intruding into our exchange. At some stage he said might submit something to International Affairs, but I do not know what about, and the moment to follow-up passed quickly.

Delays about something were bothering him, and I asked if he thought he might have come up against hard-core national security. Again my moment to press for an answer passed, but the issue was not central to our interview.

He was clearly not happy that the 2011 talks on the biological and toxin weapons convention had not strengthened the BTWC, saying the BTWC lacked any effective verification, or oversight between five-year review meetings. We didn't have chance to talk about the kind of confidence building measures which might be relevant to the two conventions.

For the most part our interview was about the Royal Society's report. And that report extends beyond the military into issues relevant to policing, such as riot control and how one defines a riot, what constitutes a chemical weapon, and are riot control chemicals covered by the CWC, might they be viewed as weapons?

In hindsight it seems to me that a subtext to the interview was a need to think about whether neuroscience and neurotechnology in relation to policing could properly be evaluated in the same policy forum as those chemicals and biologics which are potential weapons of war.

Professor Dando said, "In the context of degradation [of human capability], this report focusses on the potential weaponisation of advances in neuroscience, particularly the development of incapacitating chemical agents.

"The development of incapacitating chemical agents, ostensibly for law enforcement, raises a number of concerns in the context of humanitarian and human rights law, as well as the chemical weapons convention."

No treaties regulate directed energy weapons, he told me (I had not asked about tasers), and neural enhancement technologies are not explicitly covered by international law, which raises legal and ethical concerns. He also said there is the problem that given the state of knowledge in neuroscience and neurotechnology it is too early for certain things to yet be the subject of restrictive treaties.

A theme professor Dando returned to more than once was the need to engage with the scientific community. "We would like to engage experts in life science and chemistry in protecting the benign intent of their work, and we stress we do not know the answers", he said.

Report recommendations

1. Life science professional bodies need to instil awareness, at an early stage in neuroscience training, that knowledge and technologies developed for beneficial purposes can be misused for harmful purposes.

2. The UK government should say why it has shifted position on the interpretation of the CWC's law enforcement provision, if that is the case.

3. The UK government should improve links with industry and academia to analyse where threats might emerge in the application of neuroscience, given how the subject is evolving.

4. If neuroscience research is undertaken to enhance military activity or to degrade an opponent's capability, instead of for a non military or non law-enforcement application, that choice should be the subject of transparent ethical review.

5. The next review conference of the CWC in 2013 needs to consider the definition and status of incapacitating chemical agents under the CWC.

6. In addition to the Review Conference process, States Parties should initiate informal intergovernmental consultation on the status of incapacitating chemical agents under the CWC.

7. The implementing bodies of the BWC and CWC should improve coordination to address convergent trends in science and technology with respect to incapacitating chemical agents.

8. Neuroscience should be considered a focal topic in the science and technology review process of the BWC, because of the risks of misuse for hostile purposes in the form of incapacitating weapons.

9. There should be further study, by bodies such as the World Medical Association, on the legal and ethical implications of biophysical degradation technologies (such as directed energy weapons) targeted at the central nervous system.

10. Governments, medical associations and other professional bodies in the field of medicine should ensure that access to information about the possible risks of using cognitive enhancement drugs is available to military personnel, and is as transparent as possible.

*Malcolm Dando's fellow panelists were:

Alastair Hay, Molecular Epidemiology Unit, Leeds Institute of Genetics, Health and Therapeutics, University of Leeds

Susan Iversen, Emeritus Professor, Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford

Trevor Robbins FRS, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Cambridge

Julian Perry Robinson, Emeritus Professor, Science and Technology Policy Research (SPRU), Harvard Sussex Program, University of Sussex

Steven Rose, Emeritus Professor Department of Life Sciences, Open University

Andy Stirling, Science Director, Science and Technology Policy Research (SPRU), University of Sussex

Irene Tracey, Nuffield Professor of Anaesthetic Science & Director, Oxford Centre for Functional MRI of the Brain (FMRIB), University of Oxford

Simon Wessely, Professor of Psychological Medicine & Vice Dean, Institute of Psychiatry. Director, King's Centre for Military Health Research, King's College London.

The Royal Society's report is to be found at
Accessed 12th June, 2012

The purpose of the Department of Peace Studies at Bradford University is to study how to reduce the number of wars, and to ameliorate the consequences of war.

Minor punctuation corrections for clarity of the original were made within 24 hours, in line with site policy.

Explanatory note: BWC is, as of June 2012, a shortened acronym for BTWC. That is, the acronyms refer to the same international Convention. As an editor I suspect that the shortening of the acronym is unhelpful to understanding and analysis. HG.