US-UK ink biosecurity agreement

Framework for cooperation in homeland security catches some science groups off guard

Dec 13, 2004
Stephen Pincock(Stephen@thescientisteurope.com)

The British and United States governments announced late last week (December 9) that they had signed an agreement to establish a joint research and development framework in issues related to homeland security.

The memorandum of agreement was signed by the UK Home Secretary David Blunkett and US Homeland Security Deputy Secretary James Loy on Wednesday, December 8. The two governments issued a joint statement on the subject, saying: "This agreement demonstrates the strong relationship between the UK and US to further scientific research and development that will help advance the security of our respective countries."

Among other things, the agreement envisages exchanges of homeland/civil security information and associated exchanges of scientists, engineers, and other experts. It also makes mention of "utilization of each country's respective research, development, testing, and evaluation capacities," although exactly what that means is not completely clear.

"What we've done today is set down a starting point," a spokesman for the UK Home Office told The Scientist. "The specifics of this are still to be ironed out." He could say that the deal was not specifically targeted at scientists working for the military. "It would be experts in the fields, for example, of cyberterrorism or the detection and decontamination of chemical, biological, radioactive, and nuclear weapons," he said.

The Home Office said that the United Kingdom's Office of Science and Technology had been fully aware and involved, although the science community in the United Kingdom at least appeared to have been taken somewhat by surprise by the news.

When contacted by The Scientist, Mike Withnall, head of the Biosciences Federation, said his group—an umbrella organization launched in 2002—could not comment on the deal, because had not heard of it until the announcement. The federation's council would be discussing it at its upcoming meeting, he said.

The Royal Society, Britain's independent academy of sciences, also declined to comment on the announcement. A spokesman said the society, which has been vocal on the subject of biological weapons in the past, didn't have enough information about the new agreement to make a proper response.

Research Councils UK told The Scientist it was aware of the signing of this agreement. "Research and the publication of results are international and collaborative enterprises. The immense scientific developments that have occurred in the last century could not have taken place so rapidly without cross-national collaboration and exchange," a spokesman said.

According to the government statement, the aim of the agreement is to develop threat and vulnerability assessments for critical infrastructure and strategies for protection of automated control systems and other systems at risk; development and exchange of commercially adaptable best practices, standards, and guidelines; and the development, testing, and evaluation of homeland/civil security technologies.

D.A. Henderson, a former associate director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, currently a resident scholar at the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, told The Scientist he hadn't heard of the deal either.

"Sometimes the communication between the [US] Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security is limited," Henderson said. "So I'm not at all sure what this would imply."