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Securing Dual-use Biology

National Security: Public - and private - sector efforts emerge to oversee life sciences research

by Lois Ember
March 15, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 11

Credit: Jay Mallin/Picture Desk
Credit: Jay Mallin/Picture Desk

Secretary of Health & Human Services Tommy G. Thompson has announced the creation of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) as a first step in an HHS-led government-wide effort to deal with security-related issues in federally funded life sciences research. It will be managed by the National Institutes of Health.

In a parallel effort, the Chemical & Biological Arms Control Institute and the International Institute for Strategic Studies are setting up a global, nonprofit center to foster a culture of responsibility in the private sector. Its goal "is to create a mechanism for the sustained and positive engagement of industry on the security agenda, and for industry to contribute to managing the risk associated with work in the life sciences," says Michael L. Moodie, president of CBACI.

The private center--which is not a trade association and will include members from biotech, drug, and specialty chemical companies, as well as from the academic community and private research labs--is expected to be in place in a year.

NSABB, which is to be impaneled in three months, is also designed to foster a culture of responsibility by providing a "biosecurity measure for classes of legitimate biological research that could be misused to threaten public health or national security--so-called dual-use research," an HHS news release notes. It will function as "a public forum for the discussion of all aspects of dual-use research," NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni comments.

The debate over how much and what kind of oversight is needed for dual-use research has been fueled by recent developments, including the synthesis of a polio virus using mail-order DNA and the creation of a more lethal mousepox virus, a close relative of smallpox.

NSABB and related efforts by HHS to deal with dual-use technologies follow closely the recommendations of a report issued last fall by the National Research Council (C&EN, Oct. 13, 2003, page 15). An HHS spokesman adds that the idea for NSABB is to "generate best practices," not to interfere with peer review or other mechanisms for research quality control.

As an advisory board, NSABB will have no authority to regulate research and no enforcement powers. "It remains to be seen whether it has sufficient authority to make a meaningful contribution to security policy," says Steven Aftergood, the director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy.

HHS plans to appoint up to 25 members with expertise in law, security, ethics, and science publishing, as well as in biology. Representatives from at least 15 federal agencies will sit on the board as nonvoting members.



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