How Dangerous Is My Science?

Staff Writer

How can biomedical researchers tell whether their work might be misused by terrorists? A U.S. government-appointed panel has come up with some broad guidance on the question and suggested that in some cases, scientists should not publish the results of such "dual-use" research.

The 25-member panel--the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB)--was set up by the department of Health and Human Services (HHS) two years ago to help the government develop safeguards against the wrongful application of life sciences research. As a first step, on Friday the board laid down the standard for identifying research that might have potential for misuse, defining it as "research that, based on current understanding can be reasonably anticipated to provide knowledge, products or technologies that could be directly misapplied by others to pose a threat to public health, agriculture, plants, animals, the environment, or materiel." The definition covers research leading to insights that, among other things, could be used to "enhance the harmful consequences of a biological agent," "enhance the susceptibility of a host population," or "reconstitute an eradicated or extinct biological agent."

The board also finalized guidelines for communicating findings from such projects, recommending that authors, reviewers, and journal editors carry out a risk-benefit analysis before deciding whether to publish any work or whether to eliminate any details of a planned publication. "If you accept the fact that there is potential for science to be misused, then you could envision a situation where it might be necessary to withhold certain information from a paper," says board chair Dennis Kasper, a microbiologist at Harvard University. "If it's a serious enough withholding, the paper might merit an additional review by NSABB or some derivative of it," he says. Last year, the board reviewed a submission to Science on the reconstitution of the 1918 influenza virus and recommended that it be published with the addition of some information (Science, 7 October 2005, p. 29).

Kasper says the board is still drafting recommendations on how federal agencies and campus officials might implement the panel's guidelines. Although those recommendations will not be ready before NSABB's next meeting in October, many panelists think the primary responsibility for oversight will likely fall upon institutional biosafety committees (IBCs), "which might need to be modified to include biosecurity experts," Kasper says.

Institutional reviewers will need training in order to implement NSABB's criteria for identifying dual-use research, says toxicologist Gary Miller, chair of the IBC at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

Some worry that NSABB is emphasizing self-regulation over strict oversight. "My concern is that institutional level review will be too perfunctory or, even worse, that NSABB will leave dual-use matters in the hands of individual PIs," says Ed Hammond of the Oakland, California-based Sunshine Project, a bioweapons watchdog group. "In either case, implementation of the board's recommendations would likely create false confidence."

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