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Experts Want Scientists to Monitor Their Colleagues

University researchers who work with dangerous pathogens should keep an eye on each other and report any signs of suspicious behavior to lab managers, says a panel of life scientists that was asked by the U.S. government to think of ways to tackle the threat of lab insiders carrying out a bioterrorist attack. However, in recommendations released yesterday, the panel rejected psychological screenings, drug tests, and medical monitoring as useful methods for enhancing personnel reliability in the academic setting.

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) began looking into personnel reliability last fall after officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation said that the 2001 anthrax letter attacks had been perpetrated by U.S. Army researcher Bruce Ivins. Although the case never went to trial because of Ivins’s suicide, it prompted federal agencies to review policies for screening and monitoring individuals with access to select agents. In considering strategies to prevent individuals with evil designs from misusing access to select agents, the board studied Personnel Reliability Programs in effect within the biological labs at the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and other organizations. Select agent researchers at these places undergo high-level security screenings including mental health assessments and monitoring procedures such as random drug tests and periodic credit checks.

In the end, NSABB members decided that such policies would not be effective in mitigating the insider threat.

They thought they would also slow down the scientific enterprise. “It is appropriate to enhance extant personnel reliability measures, but the promulgation of a formal, national Personnel Reliability Program is unnecessary at this time,” NSABB’s report says.

However, NSABB recommends strengthening the Security Risk Assessment, essentially a background check by the FBI, that researchers must go through before they can work with select agents. Also, the board says, “the culture of responsibility and accountability should be enhanced at institutions that conduct select-agent research.” Toward that end, board members say, institutions should set up systems that allow researchers to report to higher-ups, without fear of alienation or stigma, what they might view as suspicious behavior on the part of a colleague.

The recommendations will likely feed into deliberations by an interagency working group on lab biosecurity that was set up by President George W. Bush days before the end of his term. That working group is expected to deliver its report by mid-July.