Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Written Evidence

Memorandum 16

Submission from Universities UK

  Universities UK is pleased to submit written evidence to the Innovation, Universities, Skills and Science Select Committee on the issue of biosecurity. This note makes some general points about the current regulatory regime and how universities fit into this, and some of the issues that arise.


  The need to secure substances or technologies that could have the potential to be misused or harm the public is taken very seriously by universities. There are already a number of pre-existing frameworks that either directly or indirectly regulate this area, covering universities and other research labs. It is also an area of regulation that is not static, with revised or additional requirements encouraging more advanced procedures. The former Science and Technology Committee visited this issue in 2003 and since then there have been a number of new developments.

  Regulation in this area is often not a straightforward issue. Any controls that prevent misuse or spread of substances or technologies can also potentially impact upon legitimate scientific activity. In many cases the substances, knowledge and technologies in this area are termed "dual use". The "dual use" dilemma faced by policy makers is that compared to hostile applications there are a large number of peaceful purposes. Universities are also large diverse organisations, which have a significant number of regulatory requirements placed on them, and it is important to bear in mind the burden this creates. Getting the regulatory balance right can therefore be difficult.


  Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, whilst primarily designed to enhance safety in the workplace does, for example, give detailed guidance on handling dangerous pathogens, and therefore has benefits for security purposes. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) regulate the condition of containment facilities and university labs are required to meet definitive standards.

  The HSE will undertake inspection on application of a license, or every 3-4 years. Recording of materials is covered under the H&S Act, though there may be some merit in exploring how this can be improved upon. The processes for logging materials under the Human Tissues Act may provide an example of good practice.

  Biosecurity training is currently limited within the sector, though there is currently a course run by the University of Sussex, jointly with the Medical Research Council (MRC). Universities UK would support the expansion of such training schemes within the sector, both for academic and relevant non-academic staff.

2001 Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act

  The aim of this legislation is to provide oversight of the possession and transfers of technology, so as to stop its application for illicit purposes. The 2001 Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act amended the Biological Weapons Act 1974, and placed new legal obligations on the scientific community to ensure that technologies are not misused or misappropriated.

  The Act is enforced through the police force. The police from a local constabulary will check security measures in universities. A recent study undertaken by the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), at University of Sussex, shows that legislation in this area has been well implemented and has not had any significant negative impact on research activity.[21]

BTWC (Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention)

  The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) leads for the UK on the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention (BTWC) 1972, which is implemented in UK law by the Biological Weapons Act 1974. There are regular international meetings that explore how the Convention can be strengthened.

  There is currently no verification mechanism for countries signed up to BTWC, unlike the Chemical Weapons Convention, which has validation and enforcement through the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). OPCW do regular inspections and compile returns. Universities have to submit reports to BERR, which it then submits to OPCW. There is an inventory of classified chemicals, and usually, communication with BERR lies with university safety officers.

Guidance from MRC, Wellcome Trust and BBSRC

  In September 2005 the UK's three leading bioscience research funding agencies published a joint policy statement on reducing the risk of the research they fund being misused for harmful purposes by terrorists, or others. The Medical Research Council (MRC), the Wellcome Trust and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) issued the statement in light of public concerns that bioscience research could be misused in the development of bioweapons.

  Following consultation across the organisations' funding and advisory committees the MRC, Wellcome Trust and BBSRC examined how existing procedures might be strengthened to heighten awareness amongst the scientific community and identify and assess risks of misuse at the initial grant application stage.

  This process has led to a series of common changes to each organisation's policy statements, guidance and procedures. These include changes to funding application forms, the development of clear guidance for funding committees and modifications of organisational guidelines on good practice in research.

Export control regulations

  The Export of Goods, Transfer of Technology and Provision of Technical Assistance (Control) Order 2003, implemented under the Export Control Act 2002, contains controls on biological weapons and regulates the transfer of intangible technologies. The new controls (and indeed the old ones) have significant implications for scientists working in HEIs.

  Universities UK worked with the DTI as the regulations developed to help to ensure that the rules were effectively communicated and understood within the academic scientific community. However, there remains some uncertainty about the extent to which the academic community is fully aware of the new regulations and obligations. The then DTI developed an explanation note for scientists (with input from Universities UK, Royal Society and Medical Research Council). This was circulated to all members of Universities UK. Universities UK are currently in discussion with the BERR on how the regulations and requirements can be promoted further.

Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS)

  The former Voluntary Vetting Scheme (VVS) focusing on postgraduate research students in specific subject areas from specific countries was reviewed by the FCO and Cabinet Office from 2004-07. The review was initiated following concerns about the effectiveness of the scheme as a counter-proliferation measure raised both by HEIs and the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

  A new scheme, the Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS), has been developed and the FCO began formal operation of the new scheme in November 2007 following a two-month trial period. Ahead of its implementation there was considerable dialogue between the higher education sector and the FCO to try to ensure the new scheme operated appropriately. It is also Universities UK's understanding that the timescales outlined for the scheme are shorter than those in operation in a number of competitor countries including the USA.

  As at January 2008 Universities UK has not received any significant concerns from HEIs about the new scheme. The view from the sector appears to be that the scheme is a proportionate response to an important national security issue. HEIs welcome the fact that the scheme applies equally to all HEIs and all relevant students. It is also appropriate that the UK Government controls this vetting process rather than the situation that operated under VVS where HEIs had to decide whether to refer applicants to the Government or not.

  Universities UK do not believe that further vetting schemes would be required at lab level. This would prove difficult and burdensome for institutions to manage and would largely duplicate vetting schemes already in place at a national level.

  However, it must be recognised that the scheme has not yet operated during the peak period for student recruitment and admissions. If the ATAS scheme is not able to process applications within expected timescales in June, July, August and September it could lead to delays in students entering the visa system and also lead to delays in the visa system. Delays in the visa system may mean that students miss the expected start of their programmes.

Key features

    —  The new scheme applies to all international (non-EEA) postgraduate research students in specific subject areas (identified by the Joint Academic Coding System (JACS)) and a small number of Masters programmes in specific subject areas.

    —  It requires students who fall into the above category to seek and obtain "clearance" before they can apply for a visa or entry clearance to come to the UK or to renew a visa if they are already in the UK.

    —  "Clearance" is sought through a free, online application process to the FCO.

    —  The student is asked to provide information on their proposed research area in the application.

    —  The FCO aim to decide on most applications within 5-10 working days and all applications within three weeks.

    —  Participation in ATAS has been mandatory from 1 November 2007.

    —  Once "clearance" has been obtained a student is able to enter the visa process and as part of the visa process students are required to provide evidence of the "clearance" in the form of a "clearance certificate".


  There remain some issues to consider around the new scheme.

  There could be difficulties for students who are renewing visas and require "clearance" as length of leave does not always correspond to course length so there could be students who have progressed onto research programmes using existing visas but then seek "clearance" and are refused. The FCO has said that this scenario is very unlikely but Universities UK has already been alerted to at least one case of an ATAS refusal involving a student who was already part way through their research programme. This scenario can cause significant difficulties for the student involved, the HEI involved and obviously does not reflect well on the UK.

  It is still a comparatively new scheme. Work needs to continue to ensure information about the scheme is communicated both overseas and in the UK.

  The new system does not link directly into the existing visa system and will not link into the new points-based immigration system.

  If the turnaround time for the processing of applications becomes longer it could present difficulties for the recruitment and admission of international postgraduate students.

Subject areas covered by the scheme

  The scheme primarily focuses on postgraduate research students but a small number of taught Masters in certain subject areas are included.

  If the exit qualification will be a Doctorate or Masters by Research (MRes, MPhil etc but not MEng, MPharm, MSci) the following subject areas are included:

Subjects allied to Medicine:

  JACS codes beginning:

    —  B1—Anatomy, Physiology and Pathology.

    —  B2—Pharmacology, Toxicology and Pharmacy.

    —  B9—Others in Subjects allied to Medicine.

Biological Sciences:

  JACS codes beginning:

    —  C1—Biology.

    —  C2—Botany.

    —  C4—Genetics.

    —  C5—Microbiology.

    —  C7—Molecular Biology, Biophysics and Biochemistry.

    —  C9—Others in Biological Sciences.

Veterinary Sciences, Agriculture and related subjects:

  JACS codes beginning:

    —  D3—Animal Science.

    —  D9—Others in Veterinary Sciences, Agriculture and related subjects.

Physical Sciences

  JACS codes beginning:

    —  F1—Chemistry.

    —  F2—Materials Science.

    —  F3—Physics.

    —  F5—Astronomy.

    —  F8—Physical and Terrestrial Geographical and Environmental Sciences.

    —  F9—Others in Physical Sciences.

Mathematical and Computer Sciences

  JACS codes beginning:

    —  G1—Mathematics.

    —  G2—Operational Research.

    —  G4—Computer Science.

    —  G7—Artificial Intelligence.

    —  G9—Others in Mathematical and Computing Sciences.


  JACS codes beginning:

    —  H1—General Engineering.

    —  H2—Civil Engineering.

    —  H3—Mechanical Engineering.

    —  H4—Aerospace Engineering.

    —  H5—Naval Architecture.

    —  H6—Electronic and Electrical Engineering.

    —  H7—Production and Manufacturing Engineering.

    —  H8—Chemical, Process and Energy Engineering.

    —  H9—Others in Engineering.


  JACS codes beginning:

    —  J2—Metallurgy.

    —  J4—Polymers and Textiles.

    —  J5—Materials Technology not otherwise specified.

    —  J7—Industrial Biotechnology.

    —  J9—Others in Technology.

    1.  Subjects included for Taught Masters as well as Doctorate and Masters degrees by research (but not MEng, MPharm, MSci):

    —  F2—Materials Science.

    —  F3—Physics (including Nuclear Physics).

    —  H3—Mechanical Engineering.

    —  H4—Aerospace Engineering.

    —  J5—Materials Technology not otherwise specified.


  Universities take their responsibilities for biosecurity very seriously. As has been outlined in this note there are a number of legal and regulatory requirements covering the condition and maintenance, and security of university labs. There are also wider requirements on the exchange of knowledge and technologies, processes to vet students, and conditions and requirements outlined by funders of research.

  Universities UK believe that the current framework of regulation, which has developed over time, provides a high level of reassurance. Any further regulation or requirements could have the potential to duplicate what is already there, damage legitimate scientific activity, or create significant burden for universities. Further requirements, must also; of course be proportionate to the risk. Any further proposals in this area must therefore be considered very carefully. We are mindful that processes can always be improved and have indicated some areas where we feel this could be the case eg more widespread biosafety training.

January 2008

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