Competing Responsibilities: Addressing the Security Risks of Biological Research in Academia

Date Published: 
21 Jan 2010

Executive Summary:

Introduction and Key Suggestions
New discoveries in the biological sciences and new applications of biotechnology offer the potential for vast societal benefits but also have led to increased national security concerns. In 2001, concerns over bioterrorism resulted in significant increases in funding for basic and applied biodefense research – for example, pathogenicity studies and vaccine and drug development which prompted increased investments in the construction of high-containment facilities to address the biosafety risks associated with that research. At the same time, concerns about the potential exploitation of emerging biotechnologies and the risk of possible theft of dangerous pathogens initiated policy debates on how to minimize security risks.

A few highly publicized cases of accidental exposures of laboratory researchers to harmful pathogens as well as the accusation of a researcher from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) as the perpetrator of the 2001 anthrax attacks prompted additional review of biosafety and biosecurity1 initiatives in the United States. While strategies to address biosafety and biosecurity may differ, there are a few parallel concepts that may achieve both safety and security. Current policy debates center around issues common to both safety and security. Two examples of common issues include good research practices and vetting of personnel. The Appendix provides a brief background of current biosecurity policy debates and additional information.

Efforts have been made by the federal government to engage stakeholders in discussions of proposed policy actions. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), the National Security Council (NSC), and interagency policy groups have reached out to the scientific community to raise awareness of biosecurity concerns and seek input on ongoing policy activities. The Office of Science and Technology Policy of the White House (OSTP), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) have initiated a few specific biosecurity outreach activities. Similarly, the academic community has taken steps to address security concerns within their institutions and have contributed to discussions and other outreach activities to engage stakeholders, like local law enforcement and the public. Despite these efforts, more needs to be done to facilitate communication and engagement among the scientific community, security community and law enforcement, and policy-makers that benefit both the conduct and advancement of science and  national security interests. While the security and scientific communities understand the importance of advancing research, assessing risks associated with that research, and implementing good research practices, there are differing perspectives on what constitutes a proper balance between these activities.