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Originally published in Tuttoscienze of LA STAMPA, 23 February 2005

Hail and fire, mixed with blood, were projected onto the Earth. One third of the Earth went up in flames, one third of trees went up in flames as well and all the green grass was burnt.” This is what St. John’s Apocalypse tells us about the end of the world. But in this era of science and technology, the Apocalypse scenario is very different from what it once was. Now it could come from science labs. This is what Martin Rees fears. Top level astrophysicist and Astronomer Royal, - a title which in the past was awarded to the great astronomer Edmond Halley - Martin Rees teaches in Cambridge and has recently published his book “Il secolo finale” (Mondadori, 2004). We asked him to tell us about his Apocalypse.

Professor Rees, your views about the future are quite dark. What scares you mostly?

First of all, I think the nuclear threat has definitely not gone away, and actually it is quite serious. Of course, the nuclear risk is less now than it was during the Cold War; nonetheless, we still have enough nuclear weapons to destroy the entire human species in a single event. And, over 50-100 years, geopolitical realignment could lead to a confrontation between new superpowers that could be even more dangerous than the Cold War. But in addition to this, we are also going to confront new threats coming from cybertechnologies and biotechnologies.

You seem particularly concerned about biotechnologies and in your book you guess that by 2020 a bioerror or bioterror episode will kill one million people. Let's remember, though, that even though we were at the time confronted with huge risks, we were able to manage the nuclear threat. Why should we not be able to manage biotechnologies?

These new technologies can put power into the hands of individuals in a way that only nation states were once empowered. If we consider nuclear arsenals, a huge amount of money, intellectual resources and facilities were necessary to build nuclear weapons and that’s why until recently only great powers could afford them. On the contrary, only small-scale equipment is needed and small groups, or even individuals, can afford to build biological weapons.

With respect to what you have said, after 9/11 the United States approved plans to double the number of its biosafety level-4 labs - that is, facilities where the most dangerous of all pathogens, for which there no known treatments or cures, are studied. This decision can be seen as very controversial since, according to many, the more people working on those pathogens we have, the more we risk that sooner or later those pathogens could be used either by terrorists or simply by a lone, crazed person...

Yes, it is a very bad trend. The number of scientists working on those pathogens and with the expertise necessary to create new viruses - genetically engineered viruses for which current vaccines or treatments are useless – is increasing. Imagine if some of them had the same mentality of those people who enjoy designing computer viruses and let them spread out all around the world! It is thought that behind the Anthrax attacks in the U. S. three years ago, there was an individual who was working in a U.S. government lab of the kind you mentioned.

What should scientists do? Should they boycott this kind of research?

Well, it is clear that military research conducted in absolute secrecy, and therefore without any possibility of an open and democratic debate, is very disquieting. However, it is very difficult to say what is right to do because if we consider, for example, those scientists working on nuclear weapons, they were totally aware they were working on bombs. Whereas scientists working on these pathogens have the so-called “dual use” problem - that is, the same technology has both benign and harmful uses; we cannot exploit the great benefits they promise us without running great risks.

Well, this is what science is: to enjoy its benefits we have always had to risk and if we hadn’t risked, we might still be living in the Middle Ages. Do you agree?

Yes, but there is something new in the kind of risks which science imposes on us today compared to those which science imposed in the past. When Faraday did his experiments about electricity, at most his own life was at risk. Or, if during a physics experiment a boiler exploded, 5 or maybe six people were killed. Today, a bioerror could unleash a global epidemic. And if we consider the effects of GM food and crops on human health and environment, as far as we know, a catastrophic outcome seems improbable – nonetheless, we cannot exclude such a scenario across the board. And so we should be extremely cautious, not only because of the large scale damage which those technologies can create, but also for the backlash they could cause against science. In the case of accidents, for example, even non-catastrophic ones, there could be strong backlash against science once the situation becomes amplified by the media.

In any case, we have learned a lot from the nuclear experience: after Hiroshima and Nagasaki physicists acquired a new conscience and they realised they had an enormous responsibility towards humankind. Do you think biologists need their own Hiroshima to acquire a conscience similar to that which nuclear physicists acquired?

I hope not! As an example, in 1975, biologists decided not to use the DNA recombinant technology, as it could be dangerous. Later on, they realised that that concern was actually exaggerated. Nonetheless, the biologist community proved to be able to behave responsibly.

What you have just said brings us to a very crucial problem: the problem of controls in science. In your opinion, should science develop freely or should it be subject to restrictions?

This is a very tricky problem, because all of us remember those institutions and political regimes which tried to control science and to subject it to moral, social or ideological values. Nobody wants those times back. But, at the same time, it is not true that in a democratic society science develops completely freely without being subject to any kind of external pressure. For example, commercial or military pressures can influence or even change the course of science. Personally, I think that the battle to avoid that certain discoveries be used to the detriment of humankind should be fought on two fronts: first of all, scientists should be aware they have a great responsibility towards society and they should carefully follow what becomes of their discoveries.

I must interrupt you by saying that this is not simple at all…

Sure, it is just as complicated as parents trying to control their teenage child – nonetheless, some parents don’t even care at all about their teenage children. Similarly, there are scientists who don’t care at all about the consequences of their own discoveries.

And what is the second front of the battle?

Dialogue. Scientists should engage with the public, because we are moving into a dangerous century and science could open doors that maybe should remain closed. And so certain decisions should not be made solely by the scientific community but should be made democratically.

Well, I think you must admit that scientists often dismiss public criticism as stupid or irrational...

This is true. And it should not be this way. Let’s consider the public aversion to nuclear power plants. Part of the scientific community dismisses that aversion as due to ignorance, but even the scientific community itself is divided regarding nuclear power systems.

Finally, going back to the social responsibility of scientists, Nobel Prize laureate Joseph Rotblat said that scientists are trained in a “moral desert,” meaning their training doesn’t include any reflection about the social and moral consequences of their expertise. What do you think about this?

I had the privilege of knowing Joseph Rotblat who, in my opinion, is one of the great men of our times. He was the only scientist who left the project for the development of the first atomic bomb, as soon as he discovered Hitler didn’t have the bomb. He didn’t want to use science to build weapons of mass destruction even though, as a Jew himself, he had every reason to be terrified by the Nazis. He spent his entire life struggling for nuclear disarmament and educating the public about that issue. It is not an exaggeration to say that our survival of the nuclear threat is thanks in part to Rotblat and those scientists who worked, as he did, for nuclear disarmament. I think we need new, young Joseph Rotblats among biologists and among all those scientists developing new technologies.