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The man who stopped America’s biological weapons program

The Future of Life Institute will give its annual award to Matthew Meselson, who led the campaign against bioweapons.

U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Grounds, Laboratory For Testing Biological And Chemical Weapons
Workers at a secret American facility work on defensive measures against biological weapons. Active development for offensive purposes is now prohibited.
George Frey/Getty Images
Kelsey Piper is a senior writer at Future Perfect, Vox’s effective altruism-inspired section on the world’s biggest challenges. She explores wide-ranging topics like climate change, artificial intelligence, vaccine development, and factory farms, and also writes the Future Perfect newsletter.

Every year, the Future of Life Institute gives the $50,000 Future of Life award to somebody whose actions at a critical moment in history saved countless lives — and maybe even saved humanity.

The group today announced this year’s recipient: Matthew Meselson, an American biologist who, in the 1960s and ’70s, spearheaded the fight for an international ban on biological warfare.

Meselson, now 88, is the Thomas Dudley Cabot professor of the natural sciences at Harvard. In an interview, he recalled how he became involved in the campaign against bioweapons “by accident.”

In 1963, he was an academic working on arms control issues, and it was then that he learned the US was working on developing anthrax. “I asked why would we do that? [My boss] said it would be a biological weapon a lot cheaper than nuclear weapons,” Meselson recalls. “I don’t think it hit me immediately. But by the time I got back to the office, it dawned on me that we don’t want a weapon of mass destruction that is cheap. We don’t want to save money to the point where anybody could have a cheap weapon of mass destruction.”

This is just the third year the Future of Life has handed out an award. The Boston-based nonprofit supports research into how to sustain life on Earth and achieve good futures for humanity, with a particular interest in how humanity can steer our own course when it comes to powerful emerging technologies.

In the past two years, the group has honored Vasili Arkhipov, a Soviet navy officer credited with preventing his side from launching a nuclear strike during the Cuban missile crisis (the United States likely would have retaliated, leading to an all-out nuclear war); and Stanislav Petrov, a Soviet officer who, in 1983, saw a warning of incoming ballistic missiles from the United States and correctly guessed that they were a false alarm by the computer system, rather than kicking off the process for the Soviets to fire back.

In granting the award to Meselson, the Future of Life Institute shines a spotlight on an existential risk that can sometimes be ignored in discussions of threats facing humanity.

The bioweapons ban that persists today

Meselson’s advocacy against biological warfare has had an enduring impact.

Today, the use of biological weapons is almost unthinkable. But this wasn’t true in the 1960s, when the US government stockpiled such weapons and work continued on developing new, more effective variants. There was an agreement about the use of biological weapons — the post-World War I Geneva Protocol, which also covered chemical weapons — but the United States wasn’t among the signatories to it.

“I decided I should go around and talk to people,” Meselson told me, “and convince them that this was a dumb thing to be doing. And also it would be necessary to convince at least part of the public.”

He wrote to every science writer for a newspaper in America, he told me, urging them to run stories. He went on television and on the radio and studied up so he could win debates with people who supported the US’s bioweapons program. He got thousands of scientists to sign a petition against biological weapons. “I wasn’t the only one; there were people both inside and outside the government who saw the insanity of our developing and producing biological weapons,” he says.

Meselson’s papers, petitions, and advocacy campaigns got results. By 1969, a few years after his campaign began, President Nixon had renounced bioweapons and resubmitted the Geneva Protocol to Congress for ratification.

But Meselson didn’t stop there. The Geneva Protocol banned the use of biological weapons, but it didn’t ban stockpiling them or research into developing them, both of which pose significant risks by themselves. Meselson and his peers pushed for a stronger agreement, and in 1972 they got the Biological Weapons Convention, which is still in place.

Daniel Feakes, chief of the Biological Weapons Convention Implementation Support Unit, said in a statement, “Through his work in the US and internationally, Matt Meselson was one of the key forefathers of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. The treaty bans biological weapons and today has 182 member states. He has continued to be a guardian of the BWC ever since.”

Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon offered his own praise. “Thanks in significant part to Professor Matthew Meselson’s tireless work, the world came together and banned biological weapons, ensuring that the ever more powerful science of biology helps rather than harms humankind. For this, he deserves humanity’s profound gratitude,” he said in a statement.

The Future of Life award is meant to highlight people who aren’t famous for what they did — who went out of their way to protect the world without any expectation that they’d gain from it. The idea behind the prize, Future of Life Institute co-founder and MIT professor Max Tegmark told me in an email, is that when people do future generations a favor — saving the world so future humans get the chance to exist — those future generations will eventually have the chance to look back and thank them.

Humanity still faces a significant risk of disaster from pathogens, either deliberately engineered or released by accident. But the Biological Weapons Convention has for the most part been adhered to, and humanity is significantly safer as a result.

Meselson thinks there’s still work to be done, though. “I think we’re hitting what I think of as an inflection point,” he told me about the modern world, “where everything is changing so fast. Our brains, and our societies, are not really ready for the age of advanced artificial intelligence, the age of settlement on other planets, the age of changing our own genome.”

He added, “It’s a very exciting time — a very challenging time.”

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