Biosecurity Concerns on Scientists' Minds

Some biomedical researchers are changing their behavior inside and outside the lab because of concerns that malefactors might misuse knowledge about their research, according to a new survey of U.S. life scientists.

To the panel that authored the survey report, the finding is at once worrisome and reassuring: worrisome because security concerns seem to be having a chilling effect on collaborations and reassuring because some researchers seem to be doing due diligence—without government regulations—to prevent terrorists from using life sciences research to cause harm. Three-fourths of the 2000 respondents in the survey expressed opposition to new federal oversight mechanisms to improve the security of so-called dual-use biological research.

Sponsored by the National Research Council and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (publisher of ScienceInsider), the survey found that 15% of respondents had taken one or more of the following steps due to security concerns: modified or altogether avoided certain research projects, censored themselves while discussing their work with colleagues, chosen not to collaborate with overseas scientists, and excluded foreign nationals from certain experiments.

In 2007, the National Scientific Advisory Board for Biosecurity recommended to the government that policies governing biosecurity should allow researchers to decide for themselves whether their projects have the potential for dual use. The government has yet to formulate any rules, but researchers at some institutions have already begun considering dual-use issues in consultation with their institutional biosafety committees while planning experiments.

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