Scientists, Behave Yourselves

Following months of nail-biting over how the U.S. government would respond to a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report on biosecurity, scientists are breathing a sigh of relief. Top government officials have said that they would implement only voluntary guidelines to control research and publication of potentially hazardous biological experiments.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the White House yesterday announced plans for a new National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. Its 25 voting members will advise federal agencies and those conducting federally funded research. Even though their recommendations will be voluntary, this will "change fundamentally the culture" for biosafety, says Elias Zerhouni, director of NIH. He believes that scientists, aware that they entered a new era after 11 September and the anthrax mail attacks, will welcome advice on how to prevent their work from being misused.

The board's creation comes 5 months after the NAS report called for more oversight from and self-policing by scientists in life sciences, particularly those working in biodefense (ScienceNOW, 8 October 2003). That report, crafted by a panel chaired by Gerald Fink, a geneticist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, emerged out of worries that the results of some research, such as work on the transmissibility of pathogens, could be used for nefarious purposes by terrorists. The Fink report recommended that HHS set up a national board to offer guidance to funding agencies.

The new board, slated to be up and running by the summer, will be based at NIH but serve all federal agencies that fund life sciences research. With an annual budget of $2.8 million, it's charged with promulgating national guidelines for the more than 400 institutional biosafety committees in the United States, which currently review relevant research at a university level. The board will also suggest guidelines for communicating research at meetings and in publications. "It is not intended to be a big-brother board that watches and penalizes," emphasized John Marburger, the White House science adviser.

"I'm delighted that the emphasis is on voluntary guidelines," says Samuel Kaplan, chair of microbiology and medical genetics at the University of Texas Medical School in Houston and chair of the publications board for the American Society for Microbiology. Still, Kaplan and others agree that there are a lot of unanswered questions. It's not clear, for example, whether the institutional biosafety committees will require additional resources to implement the board's suggestions, or precisely how publications might be governed.

Still others fear that voluntary controls are not enough. The proposal "falls dramatically short of what is needed in order to have a really effective biosecurity policy," says Elisa Harris of the University of Maryland Center for International and Security Studies.

Related sites
Information on the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity
Information on the NAS Fink report recommendations