Over the past few weeks in Geneva, international negotiators have been wrestling with a text that aims to give teeth to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). Things are not going well. This draft protocol would set up a monitoring regime to enforce the BWC's ban on bioweapons development and production. But many observers see the current text as unworkable, and it seems certain that the United States — with the quiet backing of several other nations — will reject it.

Negotiations on the protocol have been rumbling on since the mid-1990s, spurred by revelations that Russia and Iraq — both signatories to the BWC — had operated biological weapons programmes. The deadline for the talks is a BWC review conference, planned for November. But the draft is being attacked from all sides.

Pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies object to provisions that would allow random inspections of their facilities, fearing that commercial secrets would be laid bare. Proponents of stringent arms control are also unhappy; any facility receiving a random visit would be given two weeks' notice, so those involved in biowarfare could easily disguise their activities. Even 'challenge' inspections, made following specific allegations that the convention had been breached, would allow a lag of 108 hours.

The likelihood that the BWC review conference will end in failure should concern us all. The US government takes the threat of a biological attack seriously, having placed an order worth more than $300 million for 40 million doses of smallpox vaccine. It is also pouring larger sums of money into research on countermeasures. Meanwhile, some experts are warning that the threats posed by biowarfare will increase as our growing knowledge of microbial genomics and advances in techniques of genetic engineering create new possibilities for designing 'enhanced' biological weapons (see page 232).

Yet most mainstream biologists have had little engagement with these issues. Prominent researchers such as Matthew Meselson of Harvard University and Stanford University's Steven Block are doing their best to stimulate debate. Some scientific bodies are also playing their part. But the failing negotiations in Geneva are not a hot topic for lab-bench gossip. In interviews for our article on engineered bioweapons, some researchers professed not to have given much thought to the potential for their work to be abused in this way. Others clearly had mulled it over, but were reluctant to discuss the issues publicly.

The first reaction may simply be naive, but the second is misguided. It is easy to understand why biologists are wary of having their work discussed in the context of warfare and terrorism — public suspicions of biotechnology are readily provoked. But the agencies charged with defending us against biological attacks are more likely to design effective countermeasures if the wider biological community starts thinking about the problem, and contributing its ideas.

By becoming more aware of the issues and engaging more vigorously in discussions on bioweapons, biologists can also help to ensure that threats are not blown out of proportion. The prospect of a crazed individual releasing anthrax in a major city is certainly a terrifying prospect. It is not, however, the most realistic terrorist threat. Developing a way to deliver an aerosol of anthrax into the New York subway poses technological challenges that are probably beyond the means of most terrorist groups — who in any case find that guns and bombs are usually adequate for their purposes.

Similarly, although engineered bioweapons are a real danger for the future, informed scientific debate helps put those risks in perspective. The defence industry has a tendency to meet military threats with expensive proposals that may be of dubious technical merit. Biologists have a duty to urge the development of biodefences that will save lives without wasting billions of dollars.

Of course, there are no simple answers. Doctors take the Hippocratic oath, but that did not prevent the atrocities perpetrated in the name of medicine under the Nazi regime. Neither did the arms-control activism of prominent physicists block the development of the hydrogen bomb. But if biologists stick their heads in the sand and pretend that their work has nothing to do with warfare, they will be doing the world a disservice.