Balancing Science and Biosecurity

Ancient pool. The Gusev Crater site.

The U.S. should increase oversight but keep big government out of biotechnology labs--that's the message of a National Research Council report released today that aims to help prevent bioterrorism while preserving science's open culture.

The attacks of 11 September and the anthrax letters have led to significant changes for biologists. One benefit is the enormous increase in biodefense funding. Many experts worry that some of this well-intended work could backfire. In 2001, for instance, researchers accidentally discovered how to make a more virulent mousepox virus (Science, 26 January 2001, p. 585), a finding that could be abused by bioterrorists. So in addition to boosting funding, Washington clamped down on access. Laws passed in 2001 and 2002 regulate possession and exchange of infectious agents, as well as some experiments.

The risks should be reduced further, says today's report from a panel chaired by Massachusetts Institute of Technology geneticist Gerald Fink. But it recommends that the government expand existing regulations and rely on self-governance by scientists rather than adopt intrusive new policies. The group doesn't envision a major role for the Department of Homeland Security. Some key recommendations:

  • Seven types of risky studies would require approval by the Institutional Biosafety Committees (IBCs) that already oversee recombinant DNA research at some 400 U.S. institutions. These "experiments of concern" include making an infectious agent more lethal or rendering vaccines powerless. IBCs would refer difficult cases to the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee, an existing national panel whose powers and resources would need to be shored up, or the case could be decided by the director of the National Institutes of Health.
  • The government should not attempt to regulate scientific publishing but trust scientists and journals to screen their papers for security risks, a task some journals have already taken up.
  • With biological information and tools widely distributed, regulating only U.S. researchers would have little effect. That's why a new International Forum on Biosecurity should encourage the adoption of similar measures around the world.

Whether the rules should be codified in new legislation, and whether there should be sanctions for researchers who break them, is as yet unclear, says Ronald Atlas, president of the American Society for Microbiology and a member of the panel.

"Most researchers would not find [the proposed rules] a great departure from what they're already doing," says Columbia University bioterrorism expert Stephen Morse, who reviewed a draft of the report. "It seems a reasonable compromise to me."

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The full report