Rapid advances in the biological sciences over the last several decades have yielded great benefits such as medical therapies and vaccines. But some of these same scientific advances could also be used for malicious purposes, a threat that has become more salient to the science and policy communities since the terrorist attacks of 2001.
The National Research Council and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) surveyed a sample of AAAS members in the life sciences to assess their awareness of and attitudes toward such "dual-use" research – studies undertaken for beneficial purposes that could also have harmful applications such as bioterrorism. The survey also explored actions the scientists might support to reduce the risk of misuse of research, as well as steps that scientists may already be taking in response to these concerns. The results of the survey, conducted in 2007, are summarized in a new report from the Research Council, which includes recommendations for next steps.
The results suggest that survey respondents perceive a potential but not overwhelming risk of a bioterror attack in the next five years, a risk they believe is greater outside the U.S. Most respondents do not believe it is likely that dual-use knowledge, tools, or techniques will facilitate a bioterror attack in that time period.
Survey results also indicate that some respondents -- more than the committee had expected -- have been so concerned about dual-use issues that they have already taken action to try to avert misuse of research in the life sciences, even in the absence of guidelines or government restrictions. Some respondents reported that they had broken collaborations, not conducted some research projects, or not communicated research results.
Many of respondents' precautionary actions were taken during design, collaboration, and initial communication stages of research, before reaching the publication stage, the report notes. Of particular interest and concern to the committee, a few respondents offered comments about foreigners as potential security risks, which may be reflected in the reported avoidance of some collaborations.
With regard to future actions that the life sciences community would support to reduce the threat of misuse of research, the survey results indicate that life scientists in the U.S. may be more willing to consider mechanisms to reduce risks if they are developed and implemented by the scientific community itself. Most respondents favor their professional societies prescribing a code of conduct to help prevent misuse of life science research, for example, while a minority supported greater federal oversight. Among possible government restrictions, respondents were more supportive of restrictions on access to biological agents and certification of researchers than of any control of scientific knowledge generated from the research.
In addition, respondents showed support for mandatory training by institutions for practicing life scientists regarding dual-use concerns, as well as education materials and lectures for students.
The report was sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the National Academies' Presidents' Circle Communications Initiative. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter. The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.
Source: The National Academies