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12 December 2016

Preventing chemical and biological warfare

IAP and TWAS participated in the first workshop of a series by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons focusing on the science diplomacy of bringing chemistry and the interests of peace together.

The first-ever regional workshop to promote the work of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), took place recently, with a special focus on the use of chemistry for peaceful purposes.

The first workshop in this series took place in Pretoria, South Africa, hosted by the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf). Some 30 young African scientists from 16 countries, several of them nominated via their national academies, attended. The OPCW is the United Nations body designated to implementing the terms of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which entered into force in 1997 and currently has 192 signitories.

The InterAcademy Partnership (IAP) was a key participant in the OPCW event, in keeping with its years of promoting responsible research practice. In 2012, for example, IAP released 'Responsible Conduct in the Global Research Enterprise: A Policy Report’, followed earlier this year by 'Doing Global Science: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in the Global Research Enterprise'. In addition, IAP has supported a survey and awareness-raising workshops in Pakistan.

Because of the links between science practice and policy, the event held 18-20 October was also held as part of the TWAS science diplomacy programme.

Peter McGrath, the coordinator of both IAP and the TWAS science diplomacy programme, presented some of the findings of a project by the Pakistan Academy of Sciences to promote awareness of dual-use research in the biosciences in remote areas of Pakistan. Its report notes that about 50% of students had some idea of the concepts of biosafety, bioethics, dual-use research and related issues before they attend the workshop.

In contrast, a show of hands of the workshop participants from sub-Saharan Africa revealed that none of those present had received any training at the undergraduate or graduate level on such issues. This underscored the scale of the outreach work that needs to be done.

Among the different sessions, participants also visited the Nelson Mandela Foundation to view an exhibition, ‘Poisoned Pasts: Legacies of the South African chemical and biological warfare programme’. This programme was developed during the apartheid era, but many questions about research into chemicals that could be used for repression remain despite investigations by South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and others.

After the visit and interactive group discussion sessions, many participants came to agree that they would begin introducing such concepts into their courses and would lobby within their institutions for wider recognition of OPCW and its aims.

Read a full report on the workshop at the OPCW website.

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