Bridging Science and Security for Biological Research: A Dialogue between Universities and the Federal Bureau of Investigation

Date Published: 
07 Feb 2016

Bridging Science and Security for Biological Research


Just over a decade ago, anthrax was sent through the mail to high profile individuals, resulting in five deaths, additional infections, and millions of dollars in cleanup costs. While in pursuit of the perpetrator, scientists from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) interacted with a few scientists from academia who possessed the knowledge and experience needed to identify the strain and potential source. At the same time, FBI agents questioned scientists with knowledge of and experience working with anthrax. These often-conflicting and contentious interactions enhanced feelings of distrust and concern among the scientific community towards law enforcement. To help the organization better address incidents involving weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the FBI created the WMD Directorate, whose mission is to coordinate the FBI’s WMD efforts through several programs – including investigative operations, intelligence analysis, policy planning, strategic planning, and outreach to the scientific community – that address a number of issues involved in prevention and response to WMD incidents.

During this period, universities and other research institutions were facing increasing demands to comply with newly created security requirements to prevent theft or illicit use of any chemical, radiological, or biological agents of national security and/or public health concern. While some of the laws and policies were in place before 2001, they were significantly enhanced after 9/11 and the anthrax letters. In addition, new laws governing transfer of funds and personnel security were enacted to prevent potential terrorists from acquiring the financial resources and capabilities that might help them cause harm to the United States. As regulations related to research were tightening, the United States began funding universities and private organizations to conduct biodefense research to develop vaccines, drugs, and diagnostic tests related to a group of pathogens and toxins, termed select agents. In response to this increase in funding, the number of scientists and universities involved in research with select agents or their genetic material increased and several high-containment laboratories (biosafety level 3 and 4 laboratories) were built to accommodate the research.