Biodefense: What Can Scientists Do?
By K. Shmueli
One of the greatest challenges within biodefense lies in managing risks posed by dual use research, defined as beneficial research that may be directly misapplied for malicious purposes. Besides classic dual-use cases, such as publishing the full DNA sequence of the 1918 influenza virus, the problem is that almost all life sciences research could fall into this category; it is not difficult to find mainstream biological journal articles in terrorist manuals.
Scientists are advised not to ‘hype’ discussion of the potential for misuse of their discoveries in public forums, such as journal articles. The intelligence community is also working with the scientific community including researchers, journal editors, policy makers, equipment manufacturers, and grants administrators to safeguard dual use information and technology. Restricting activities, whether by US manufacturers of genome synthesizers or by ‘Do-it-yourself’ science enthusiasts, may not be the wisest course of action as it could simply favor competitors in China or Tehran or result in a “black market” in technology. Instead, the focus now seems to be on fostering communication, education and awareness-building in the scientific community.
So what can, and should, we as scientists be doing? It is clear that there is a growing need for trained scientists within the relevant government agencies to ensure appropriate communication and monitoring. Beyond that, there is a pressing need to educate scientists, particularly in the light of a recent Survey of Attitudes and Actions on Dual Use Research in the Life Sciences showed that among those US life scientist respondents currently engaged in research, only 16 percent considered their research to have dual use potential. The survey also suggests that a consensus is emerging among some life scientists towards self-governance aimed at responsible scientific conduct for dual use research. Scientists in academia are already coming together to suggest policy actions to address the security risks of biological research and the National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats encourages the global life sciences community to reinforce norms of safe and responsible conduct. There are also recommendations for programs to educate professional and graduate-level biological scientists on dual use research and biosecurity.
However, there is still a huge amount of education and policy work to be done. To facilitate self-governance, scientists need to be trained to utilize the inter-personal aspects of their work. Lab colleagues know each other well and are ideally positioned to identify personal factors that could influence an individual’s behavior and lead them toward misconduct. As well as teaching scientists to recognize aspects of their work that could be considered dual use, institutions need to designate points of contact to consult on and deal with dual use issues and potential misconduct. This year, my institute’s mandatory ethics training focused on dual use issues but we are still far from a “1-800” culture of knowing who to call when biodefense concerns surface.