Researchers, Regulators Share Biosecurity Risks

Research institutions should take the lead in securing their labs against biological threats, but they would benefit from biosecurity guidelines coordinated across federal agencies, says a new report from AAAS.


Copy of Competing Responsibilities?: Addressing the Security Risks of Biological Research in Academia
A copy of Competing Responsibilities?: Addressing the Security Risks of Biological Research in Academia

More than 400 American laboratories work with biological agents that have the potential to cause serious harm in a bioterror attack or accidental dispersal, but the same laboratory materials are also used in valuable disease, agricultural, and energy research. Several bills pending in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives would consolidate the list of dangerous pathogens, expand federal oversight of these labs, and establish new security standards for the agents that pose the greatest risk.

As Congress considers this wide-ranging legislation, the AAAS report urges better communication between scientists and security specialists to promote flexible security programs that will be effective as new risks evolve and new technologies emerge.

To achieve this goal, the report suggests that the federal government develop a common regulatory system for chemical, radiation, and biological agents. Academic institutions have limited administrative and financial resources with regard to regulation, it notes, and the current system of separate requirements often supports a “culture of compliance” rather than a culture of security.

At the same time, the report said, universities need to do a better job of explaining the role of their safety committees and institutional review boards to reassure regulators and the public that adequate programs are in place to address bio-security issues.

The report, “Competing Responsibilities?: Addressing the Security Risks of Biological Research in Academia,” summarizes a meeting sponsored earlier this year by AAAS, the Association of American Universities, and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. The 20 to 21 January event included university leaders, scientists, and representatives of the national security community.

The AAAS report is available at www.aaas.org/go/aaas_aau_2010/.