Biosecurity Codes

What are Codes?

A code is a set of conventional principles and expectations that are considered binding on any person who is a member of a particular group, whether or not membership in that group is voluntary. A code is a unique regulatory instrument that should not be mistaken with a treaty, guideline, or principle.

There are also a number of different words that can be used in place of codes (e.g. – charter, oath, declaration, etc…) but mean essentially the same thing as evidenced by some of the examples below.

Types of Codes:

Codes can either be voluntarily binding or involuntarily binding. A code could be said to be voluntarily binding on a participant that chooses to be a member of any society or group that sponsors a code. While codes which have concrete consequences irregardless of one’s voluntary entry into compliance can be said to be involuntarily binding.

Some researchers have further categorized codes by their objectives and the level at which the code is binding.

Aspirational (codes of ethics) – set out ideals that practitioners should uphold.
Educational/Advisory (codes of conduct) – go further than “Aspirational codes” by tying actions to guidelines which suggest how to act appropriately.
Enforceable (codes of practice) – seek to further codify what is acceptable practice. Rather than attempting to sway or guide behavior, enforceable codes are embedded within wider systems of professional and legal regulations.

Source: Rappert, Brian (2004), Towards a Life Sciences Code: Countering the Threat from Biological Weapons, Bradford Briefing Papers, University of Bradford Department of Peace Studies, Bradford, UK.

There is much debate as to the effectiveness of “aspirational” and “educational” codes that are voluntary and unenforceable, specifically when one is determined to act against the code. While this problem is eliminated when a code is coupled with an enforcement mechanism, care must be taken that the code is not redundant because it simply mimics legal statutes.

Examples of Codes:

Codes are used to guide people’s actions in a variety of different sectors and activities. As they have been developed in a number of science and engineering disciplines, outside the life sciences, it could be useful to examine different codes in order to incorporate their successful characteristics.

Governmental Code

Below is the code of ethics for scientific researchers working within the US Department of Agriculture.

Code of Scientific Ethics for the United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service

Institutional Code

Below is the code of ethics for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

IEEE Code of Ethics

Associational Code

Below is the code of conduct for the World Nuclear Association.

World Nuclear Association Charter of Ethics

Examples of Biosecurity Codes:

There is no “universal” code to guide the conduct of those involved in the life sciences. Below are examples of biosecurity codes from different sources that are currently in use.

Codes Proposed by Individuals

Below is a proposed code of ethics for the life sciences developed by M. A. Somerville, McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics, and Law, and Ronald M. Atlas, Center for the Deterrence of Biowarfare and Bioterrorism at the University of Louisville .

Code of Ethics for the Life Sciences
All persons and institutions engaged in any aspect of the life sciences must

1. Work to ensure that their discoveries and knowledge do no harm
(i) by refusing to engage in any research that is intended to facilitate or that has a high probability of being used to facilitate bioterrorism or biowarfare; and
(ii) by never knowingly or recklessly contributing to development, production, or acquisition of microbial or other biological agents or toxins, whatever their origin or method of production, of types or in quantities that cannot be justified on the basis that they are necessary for prophylactic, protective, therapeutic, or other peaceful purposes.
2. Work for ethical and beneficent advancement, development, and use of
scientific knowledge.
3. Call to the attention of the public, or appropriate authorities, activities
(including unethical research) that there are reasonable grounds to believe
are likely to contribute to bioterrorism or biowarfare.
4. Seek to allow access to biological agents that could be used as biological
weapons only to individuals for whom there are reasonable grounds to
believe that they will not misuse them.
5. Seek to restrict dissemination of dual-use information and knowledge
to those who need to know in cases where there are reasonable grounds to
believe that the information or knowledge could be readily
misused through bioterrorism or biowarfare.
6. Subject research activities to ethics and safety reviews and monitoring to ensure that
(i) legitimate benefits are being sought and that they outweigh the risks and harms; and
(ii) involvement of human or animal subjects is ethical and essential for carrying out highly important research.
7. Abide by laws and regulations that apply to the conduct of science unless to do so would be unethical and recognize a responsibility to work through societal institutions to change laws and regulations that conflict with ethics.
8. Recognize, without penalty, all persons’ rights of conscientious objection to participation in research that they consider ethically or morally objectionable.
9. Faithfully transmit this code and the ethical principles upon which it is based to all who are or may become engaged in the conduct of science.

Source: Atlas, R.M., and Somerville , M.A. (2004), “Ethics: A Weapon to Counter Bioterrorism”, Science, Vol. 307, Issue 5717, The American Association for the Advancement of Science, pp. 1881-1882.

Governmental Code

The government of the UK has developed a “7-point” code entitled, “Rigour, respect and responsibility: a universal ethical code for scientists.” The code is meant to be educational, capture a small number of broad principles that are shared across disciplinary and institutional boundaries, and be adopted voluntarily by individuals and institutions.

The Cuban government has developed the “Code on Professional Ethics for Workers in the Sciences in Cuba” (text in Spanish). Although it focuses on a number of different scientific disciplines, it is clear that the text is meant to guide the actions of life scientists.

Institutional Code

The Wellcome Trust is an independent charity organization in the UK which funds Biomedical Science. Below is the Wellcome Trust Position statement on Bioterrorism and Biomedical Research which regulates the conduct that shall used by scientists accepting their funds.

Wellcome Trust Position Statement on Bioterrorism and Biomedical Research

Associational Code

Below is the Australian Society for Microbiology (ASM)’s code of ethics.

ASM Ethics
(The ASM also endorses the IUMS Code of Ethics against Misuse of Scientific Knowledge, Research and Resources.)