Should academics who work on dangerous pathogens be required to undergo periodic psychological evaluations to ensure that they are not mentally imbalanced as U.S. Army researcher Bruce Ivins appears to have been? Currently, they're not. But the question was clearly on the table today at a meeting of the National Scientific Advisory Board on Biosecurity.
Over the last two years, the board has been discussing what federal agencies, institutions, and scientists must do in order to prevent the accidental or deliberate misuse of life sciences research. In the wake of Ivins' implication in the 2001 anthrax letter attacks, NSABB is now looking into ways to minimize the threat of an academic scientist with access to deadly pathogens carrying out a criminal or terrorist attack. Although federal rules already require institutions and individuals who do research on select agents to undergo a security check, the case of Ivins, who committed suicide on 29 July, has raised concerns about whether current procedures are good enough.
The board has yet to come up with any recommendations on the matter, but adding mental health evaluations to the screening process is a possibility. One NSABB member told Science that the board could decide not to recommend any new requirements in the end.