Students screened for bioterror links
ABC Science Online
Thursday, 3 May 2007
(Developing biological weapons like bombs filled with anthrax or botulinum depends on scientific expertise. But where does this expertise come from? (Image: iStockphoto)
Australian universities need to better screen international science students to avoid their skills being used to develop biological and other weapons back home, says an intelligence expert.
“We have to be very vigilant in this regard,” says former United Nations weapons inspector Rod Barton.
“It would be terrible if we, Australia, helped another country [to develop biological weapons], another Iraq.”
Barton was speaking ahead of a presentation today to Melbourne's Bio21 Institute on Iraq's biological weapons program.
Barton says many countries unwittingly contributed to Iraq's program by selling the country equipment, such as bacterial growth medium, and educating its scientists.
He says during the 1970s and 1980s Iraqi students were sent to study in English-speaking universities so they could develop scientific expertise in disciplines related to developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
The students were sponsored by the Iraqi government and had no idea they were being trained to provide a pool of talent, says Barton.
He says while some international science students are currently being screened, this should be improved with universities playing an important role.
“The universities themselves need to be more aware,” he says, specifically to certain study areas that might me relevant to developing WMDs.
Universities should be getting this advice from the Department of Defence's export control area, says Barton.
Immigration would also be involved in the screening process, he says.
A very grey area
Barton says the study areas to be scrutinised would be very broad and include chemistry, biology and physics. And that it would be difficult to tell the difference between legitimate research and what could help a weapons program.
“Obviously if someone wants to come and work on anthrax in Australia and they have anthrax problems in their own country, isn't that legitimate? I think you have to look at it on a case-by-case basis,” he says.
Barton says he is not in favour of blanket bans.
“I don't think we should stop all students from certain countries from coming here just because they may finish up in some program or other. I think that would be unreasonable,” he says.
The threat of biological warfare needs to be taken seriously, says a former UN weapons inspector (Image: Reuters/Russell Boyce)
“It's all a matter of where you draw the line. It's a very grey area,” he says. “It comes back to the control authorities, which in this case would be the Department of Defence.”
Barton says he previously headed a branch of Australian defence intelligence that provided advice to government on whether a student's proposed study program could be related to a weapons program.
“Sometimes we would make a recommendation and say, 'This is very close to what that country is actually working on … so it might be safer if you did not allow that particular field of study.' And we might even suggest something that would be suitable,” he says.
A storm in a teacup?
Universities say they are already aware of the issue.
The Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee (AVCC) says it, and individual universities, have in the past liaised with Australian government departments, including the defence and foreign affairs departments.
“Australia's universities will continue to work collaboratively with the government to enable appropriate engagement and cooperation between all relevant parties,” says AVCC president Professor Gerard Sutton.
Former Dean of Science at the University of Technology, Sydney thinks the issue a bit of a storm in a teacup.
Emeritus Professor Tony Moon says in his 12 years as dean, the university only had to liaise once with foreign affairs about an international student.
He says the student, from the southern part of Thailand, wanted to study a disease-causing organism.
“It turns out he was working on it for entirely humanitarian reasons.”
Moon says it would not be practical to prevent basic scientific skills acquired by international students being used for ill purposes.
And such skills would not be much different from those they could get from self-study, he says.
As for PhD research, Moon says this must already pass stringent ethics and safety controls that would pick up any risky activity.
And he says these controls apply equally to research by local students, who outnumber international ones.
“I don't think there's any evidence that says international students are more or less prone to illegal or immoral activities than local students,” he says.
Call for global biotech watchdog, News in Science 28 Feb 2006
Censorship 'just tip of iceberg', News in Science 14 Feb 2006
Bio-weapons, Catalyst ABC TV, 1 Nov 2001