The Bush administration has taken a new step to prevent legitimate biological research from being misused by bioterrorists. It has created a national board to advise scientists on ways to conduct research so terrorists cannot adapt it.
U.S. Health Secretary Tommy Thompson has been empowered to name a 25 member board with expertise in biology, security, and ethics to oversee the security of biological research conducted by government agencies and government-funded private researchers.
"The advances in medicine that our researchers make save countless lives and improve the quality of life for all of us. Unfortunately, the power to heal can also be the power to destroy," he said. "The very tools developed to better the health and condition of mankind can also be used to harm it."
To prevent such harm, the new National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity will help government agencies develop strategies for overseeing the security of biological research. Although the board will not have authority over privately-funded scientists, it will help develop a voluntary code of conduct that can be adopted by professional biological research organizations everywhere in the world. In addition, it will offer advice on ways to guide the publication of such research and its presentation at public meetings.
President Bush's special assistant for homeland security, John Gordon, calls the advisory panel a good balance between national security and research that improves lives. He points out that the new policy does not involve legislation or other regulation of scientific research.
"Our response must be carefully measured lest we do more harm than good in the name of biosecurity, and lest we somehow stifle the needed research that is so important to all of us. Heavy-handed government regulation isn't the answer, but I think there is a very appropriate government role," he said.
A panel of experts commissioned by the government recommended such a scientific research advisory board last October. The experts cited several areas of research that should be scrutinized. They include experiments that could render vaccines and medicines ineffective, strengthen a disease organism or increase its transmissibility, and enable a biological agent such as smallpox to be made into a weapon.
The scientist who directs U.S. government infectious disease research, Anthony Fauci, says the new advisory board will not review individual experiments or deal with researchers directly. He says it will leave the policing of any guidelines it adopts to the local research biosafety committees that the government requires be part of any institution it funds.
"This is not something that is going to redesign scientifically the experiment," he said. "It's to create that culture of being able to do things in a way that's both scientifically of the highest level but also safe vis-ŕ-vis biosecurity."
President Bush's science advisor, John Marburger, says the government is relying heavily on those who perform research to make biosecurity a personal goal.