In The Field

Science for and against terrorism

richard-mottram_01.jpgScience can be a great help for those fighting terrorism but there’s an unpleasant flipside to this, Sir Richard Mottram told ESOF this morning.

“There’s the awkward fact that lots of terrorists are scientists, engineers or doctors,” says Mottram, a former secretary of intelligence in the UK. “… You can’t have an open society and open science in the traditional way without running some very significant risks.”

In his keynote speech on science and terrorism he also claimed that some of the scientific advances in the fight against terrorism, such as biometrics and exploiting new surveillance techniques, could eventually “have significant impact on the character of the free society we are seeking to sustain against the efforts of terrorists to undermine it”.

I grabbed a few moments with him…

How can science contribute to the fight against terrorism?

It can contribute particularly in relation to social sciences and thinking about what drives radicalisation. It can contribute then in very clear ways to our intelligence effort, police efforts, forensic support for criminal justice systems, new advanced ways of getting inside terrorist networks and bringing the people concerned to justice and blocking their attacks. That’s the way forward; thinking about how we can make our society more resilient and helping to design in resilience to our society. These are really valuable ways science can work.

Do we have to accept more limits on scientific freedom now than we have in the past, because of the threat of terrorism?

I think we do. Particularly in relation to the biological sciences, because it’s not difficult to conceive of ways in which developments in the biological sciences could be exploited by small numbers of people in ways which created very significant dangers. So we have to think of ways of governing that risk which still enable us to achieve scientific progress; particularly because scientific progress in that area is so important in the fight against disease.

This is a very difficult balance which we’re going to have to try and find.

Is the balance in right place at the moment?

I think it probably is. This isn’t a risk I personally lie awake at night worrying about. But I do think that going forward, because of the pace of scientific change it’s something that will increasingly become an issue.

So what risk is it that keeps you awake at night?

If I was worried about risks in that area in the UK I would worry more about the risk of a flu pandemic. A flu pandemic … could lead to say 400,000 excess deaths, that’s a high consequence risk which is of high probability.


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