Anti-terror legislation may curb bio-research

October 24, 2003

Moves to make research that is potentially useful for bioterrorism subject to greater secrecy could deter scientists from carrying out controversial projects.

Members of an expert panel of the National Research Council, which advises US Congress on science issues, have expressed discomfort about the impact of their call for action on the dissemination of findings.

The panel wants researchers conducting biological research to submit their plans to peer-review committees, which could determine whether the work could be used against national security.

The proposal, sent as a report to the US government, is for a largely voluntary review process. Journal editors would also be responsible for screening articles that could provide dangerous information to terrorists.

The NRC panel - known as the Fink Committee - said the scheme would work best if adopted internationally, though it was strongly against government censorship of scientific publications.

But John Collier, an anthrax researcher at Harvard Medical School and a member of the panel, admitted that the new regulations he wants might discourage scientists from conducting biological research that some people would deem controversial.

"That's something that we very much hope will not occur. It's one of my great concerns," he said.

The regulations would, Dr Collier said, "threaten the established norm in science of publishing results, making them open to all, which is the basis of the rapid progress of science in modern times".

Ronald Atlas, graduate dean at the University of Louisville and another panel member, argued that the proposals would create "avenues of dialogue with the security community that have been lacking in the life sciences".

"There are some who are concerned about any regulations," he said. "The Fink Committee report makes it clear that essential research can proceed while the scientific community embraces a new sense of ethical oversight."

Dr Atlas conceded that some scientists worried that this would open the door to Big Brother-style state interference in research and said that it remained to be seen how the government would respond to the report, perhaps moving beyond the panel's recommendations imposing mandatory regulations.

"It also remains to be seen how the proposed system migrates across borders," Dr Atlas said.

"The committee emphasised the importance of international harmonisation and cooperative efforts to reduce the potential for misuse of life-science research."

Under the plan, research proposals would undergo peer review and any that triggered concern would be sent for further analysis by a committee of the National Institutes of Health. Topics of alarm would include studies into mechanisms that made vaccines ineffective or microbes more virulent or harder to detect.

Calls for tighter controls on such research have been raised since the still-unsolved anthrax attacks in the US two years ago.

In the 1970s, concern that research into recombinant DNA might accidentally give rise to dangerous microbes resulted in a voluntary moratorium in the field by the scientific community.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments