Press Release - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Matthew Meselson Receives Future of Life Award for Work to Ban Bioweapons

| Apr. 09, 2019

Boulder, Colorado – Matthew Meselson, a driving force behind the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), has received the $50,000 Future of Life Award for his successful efforts to ban biological weapons – one of the most inhumane forms of warfare known to humanity. The award was presented on April 9 during the Keynote Ceremony of the Conference of World Affairs at the University of Colorado, Boulder. April 9 marked the eve of the 47th anniversary of the signing of the BWC.

Meselson’s long career is studded with highlights: validating Watson and Crick’s hypothesis on DNA structure, solving the Sverdlovsk Anthrax mystery, and ending the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. But it is above all his work on biological weapons that makes him an international hero.

Astronomer Royal Lord Martin Rees said, “Matt Meselson is a great scientist — and one of very few who have been deeply committed to making the world safe from biological threats. This will become a challenge as important as the control of nuclear weapons — and much more challenging and intractable. His sustained and dedicated efforts fully deserve wider acclaim.”

Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “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."

Daniel Feakes, Chief of the Biological Weapons Convention Implementation Support Unit, said, “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. His seminal warning about the potential for the hostile exploitation of biology foreshadowed many of the technological advances we are now witnessing in the life sciences and responses which have been adopted since.”

Meselson was struck, he says, by the illogic of the inexpensive weapons of mass destruction the U.S. was starting to build  — it would be an obvious national security risk to decrease the production cost of WMDs. Meselson wrote a paper on the topic, reached out the Nixon administration, and launched an advocacy campaign. By the end of 1969, President Nixon had renounced biological weapons and resubmitted the Geneva Protocol for ratification. Another of Meselson’s papers led Nixon to reject the use of all toxin weapons. 

Internationally, Meselson and his peers pushed for an agreement stronger than the Geneva Protocol, that would ban stockpiling and offensive research in addition to use. From their efforts came the Biological Weapons Convention, which stands to this day.

Meselson has said that biological warfare “could erase the distinction between war and peace.” Other forms of war have a clear beginning and end. Biological warfare would be different: “You don’t know what’s happening, or you know it’s happening but it’s always happening.” 

And the consequences of biological warfare can be greater, even, than mass destruction: Attacks on DNA could fundamentally change humankind. FLI honors Matthew Meselson for his efforts to protect not only human life but also the very definition of humanity. 

"Today biotech is a force for good in the world, associated with saving rather than taking lives, because Matthew Meselson helped draw a clear read line between acceptable and unacceptable uses of biology", said MIT Professor and FLI President Max Tegmark. "This is an inspiration for those who want to draw a similar red line between acceptable and unacceptable uses of artificial intelligence and ban lethal autonomous weapons."

Background: The Future of Life Award is a prize awarded by the Future of Life Institute for a heroic act that has greatly benefited humankind, done despite personal risk and without being rewarded at the time. The idea behind this prize is to help establish a meme that when someone does future generations a great favor, then future generations will eventually show appreciation, by rewarding them or (if they’ve passed away), by rewarding their near and dear. The inaugural Future of Life Award was given to the family of Vasili Arkhipov in 2017 for single-handedly preventing a Soviet nuclear attack against the US in 1962, and the 2nd Future of Life Award was given to the family of Stanislav Petrov for preventing a false-alarm nuclear war in 1983.

The Future of Life Institute (FLI) is a non-profit based in the Boston area. Its mission is to catalyze and support research and initiatives for safeguarding life and developing optimistic visions of the future, including positive ways for humanity to steer its own course considering new technologies and challenges.

The Conference on World Affairs is a community forum at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Each April it hosts “CWA Week,” a festival that attracts over 70,000 attendees. 

See more here about Meselson’s career and a video in which he describes the origin of the biological weapons ban.

Press release from Future of Life Institute

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:Matthew Meselson Receives Future of Life Award for Work to Ban Bioweapons.” Press Release, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, April 9, 2019.