Nuclear Weapons

Public Consultation Meeting of the NSABB

07.16.08 | 3 min read | Text by FAS

On Tuesday, July 15, 2008 the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) hosted a meeting to solicit public comment on the June 2007 report, “Proposed Framework for the Oversight of Dual Use Life Sciences Research: Strategies for Minimizing the Potential Misuse of Research Information”.

The meeting was broken into three panels that examined different aspects of the framework document, and each panel included several members of the public who shared their perspective on these issues.

The first panel focused on the NSABB criterion for identifying “dual use research of concern” and the examples of research that deserve careful consideration with regard to this criterion. Speakers included David Emery, University of Washington; Jan Leach, Colorado State University; Ronald Atlas, University of Louisville; Richard Marchase, University of Alabama, Birmingham; and Alan Pearson, Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. In general, the speakers complained that the criterion was vague and subjective, and as a result is subject to many interpretations as to what type of research constitutes a real risk. Several speakers said that certain categories of research were not defined as potentially dual use in the draft, such as theoretical research and interdisciplinary research that goes beyond the life sciences. Most felt that the best way to move forward was to define more objective criteria, review them periodically, and include examples of research that may be considered dual use research of concern.

The next panel focused on what responsibilities should fall to certain groups when identifying and responding to dual use research of concern. Panelists for this section included Samuel Stanley, Washington University; Theresa Koehler, University of Texas Houston Health Science Center; Joseph Kanabrocki, University of Chicago; Richard Frothingham, Duke University Medical Center; Gigi Kwik Gronvall, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center; and Elisa Harris, University of Maryland. Most, but not all, of the panelists agreed with the NSABB recommendation that the Principle Investigator (PI) should be primarily responsible for making the initial determination if their research might be dual use of concern. However, many also pointed out that this system creates a clear conflict of interest for the investigator, which would likely cause scientists to under report this type of research to authorities. Panelists also pointed out that PIs are not ready to evaluate their research for dual use potential since many are not aware of or have not received training in dual use issues. At the institutional level, many speakers felt that Institutional Biosafety Committees (IBCs) could expand their expertise to enable them to adequately advise and review research for dual use potential.

The final panel of the day focused on the guidance and educational material needed to assist the research community in dealing with dual use research. Perspectives about this topic were given by Thomas Pistole, University of New Hampshire; Nancy King, Wake Forest University; Michael Stebbins, Federation of American Scientists; Kenneth Berns, American Society for Microbiology and University of Florida; and Gerald Epstein from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All of the panelists agreed that education was absolutely necessary to increase awareness of dual use research and these efforts need to engage scientists at all career stages. It was stressed that educational material must have a uniform message that needs to be framed and presented in ways that appeal to each unique target audience. Finally, panelists agreed that a full and rich communication plan must be developed ahead of time when presenting dual use research to the press and public.

The next NSABB meeting is scheduled for November 2008.