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Science, Law Enforcement Build Biotech Bridges

With scientists working to create new life forms and amateur biology clubs springing up nationwide, it stands to reason that the U.S. security community would be concerned that one rogue researcher or one innocent error might create a grave problem.

But before uneasiness could turn to conflict, the FBI, working closely with AAAS, embraced a new strategy. The Bureau held conferences with university and private sector researchers, attended synthetic biology science fairs, and spent time with do-it-yourself (DIY) biologists. The message, though tailored for each audience, was consistent.


Genspace President Ellen Jorgensen (left) and FBI Supervisory Special Agent Edward H. You (right).

“We want science and security communities to come to an understanding to promote a culture of responsibility,” says Edward H. You, an experienced researcher and now the FBI supervisory special agent guiding the outreach effort. By bringing those communities together, “we can... identify what some of the risks and gaps might be, and then come up with strategies that make sense to both communities to mitigate those risks and gaps.”

A certain amount of uneasiness was inevitable after the deadly blitz of anthrax letters that followed the 9/11 terror attacks and, more recently, the stunning advances and increasing accessibility of biotech research. In research published last May in Science, genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter announced development of the first cell controlled by a synthetic genome. That breakthrough underscored that biotech will likely create unpredictable implications for science and society.

In a recent appearance at AAAS, bioethicist Thomas H. Murray said synthetic biology—fundamentally altering life or creating new life forms—offers “mind-boggling” possible benefits, from production of new pharmaceuticals to cleaning up oil spills. But, he added, the benefits must be weighed against bioterrorism and other hard-to-define risks.

“If I didn’t think the potential benefits...were massive, there would be no point in having this conversation,” said Murray, president and chief executive officer of the Hastings Center, in the annual AAAS-Hitachi Lecture on Science & Society on 28 October.

Finding the best balance of benefits and risks is the rationale for the collaboration between the FBI and AAAS, said AAAS biosecurity expert Kavita Berger, an associate program director in the Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy.

Just a few years ago, Berger contributed to a survey of researchers that found only a third were comfortable sharing their research with agents, and a mere 14% felt comfortable with the FBI having a role in monitoring research.

But if science and security couldn’t build a working relationship, she thought, then policy-makers, acting out of mistrust or fear, might impose rules that impede research without affecting real security concerns.

Collaboration, she said, is “ultimately going to be a lot more productive and a lot more useful in reaching the end goals of security and science.”

In professional conferences organized by the FBI and AAAS, You and Berger have had agents and researchers work through simulated problems related to biotech and biosecurity. In the process, they learned about each other’s values, perspectives, and practices.

Now the uneasiness is giving way to closer interaction between researchers and law enforcement, with major universities offering to host the conferences. “We’re seeing a paradigm shift,” said You, who had worked in gene therapy and cancer research before joining the FBI.

AAAS is helping forge a similar relationship with amateur biologists, who number an estimated 4000 or more nationwide. An informal meeting this fall brought three of them together with You and others from the FBI, along with government and AAAS officials. The DIY speakers described how a love of science and commitment to public engagement has led them to hold exhibits at street fairs and form community labs.

Ellen Jorgensen, an assistant professor in pathology at New York Medical College and president of the Genspace community lab in New York City, acknowledged that cooperation with agents does not come easily for many in the DIY movement.

But, she said, “I think that the meetings we have had were very useful in terms of fostering some trust between the FBI and the DIY biocommunity... To kill a movement that embodies a reawakened public enthusiasm about science due to concerns about biosecurity would be a terrible shame.”