President Barack Obama, on July 2, signed an executive order that seeks to increase the nation's defenses against the threat of biological weapons while reducing the hurdles that scientists face as they pursue research on potentially dangerous microbes.
The White House directive calls for a number of actions, including the creation of a tiered, risk-based classification of dangerous biological agents that more precisely defines the degree of research restriction appropriate for each, and better coordination among the federal departments and agencies that oversee this research.
Since the 2001 anthrax attacks, the U.S. has put in place an increasingly complex regulatory framework to address physical security and personnel reliability at biodefense research laboratories. The rules seek to ensure that pathogens and toxins do not get into the hands of terrorists.
However, a 2009 survey by Texas Tech University found that two-thirds of U.S. researchers say they are concerned that they might inadvertently violate one of those rules and damage their careers. The executive order aims to reduce such anxiety.
"The new executive order is a win, both for scientists who have been frustrated as they've sought to study these agents for the public good and for the American people who count on the federal government to protect them from those who would use these agents to cause harm," says Peter Emanuel, assistant director for chemical and biological countermeasures at the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy.