Science Policy

The “What if?” of Dual-Use Research Awareness

06.12.08 | 7 min read | Text by Michael Stebbins

The principle is simple. The products, information and techniques of some life sciences research could be misused for nefarious purposes, such as bioterrorism, and the scientific community should do everything it can to prevent such misuse without impeding research progress. What is unclear is what steps scientists should take when they have concerns about such “dual-use” research.

The problem is that we (myself included) have not taken the long-view on this issue.

Dual-use research has been the subject of much discussion in the biosecurity community since the 2003 release of the National Research Council report, Biotechnology Research in the Age of Terrorism, which suggested that, “Adequately addressing the potential risks that research in advanced biotechnology could be misused by hostile parties will require educating the community of life scientists, both about the nature of these risks and about the responsibilities of scientists to address and manage them.” But convincing scientists that they should add dual-use research awareness and evaluations to their already long list of idiosyncratic worries turned out to be far harder than anyone imagined.

Enter the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. In June of last year, the NSABB released their Proposed Framework for the Oversight of Dual Use Life Sciences Research, in which the board recommend that life scientists receive “mandatory education about dual-use research issues and policies,” with the goal of “ensure(ing) that all individuals engaged in life sciences research are aware of the concerns and issues regarding dual use research and their roles and responsibilities in the oversight of such research.”

In addition to mandatory training, both the National Research Council and the NSABB have advocated for the creation of codes of conduct for life sciences researchers that includes dual-use awareness. Now, research societies are preparing and implementing their codes of conduct, infusing another layer of awareness into the research community.

Indeed, it will not be long before it is mandatory that all federal grantees in the life sciences receive such training, and that all biologists sign codes of conduct. Awareness will spread like happy little dandelions. That is until someone points out that they are weeds.

Don’t get me wrong. I am an advocate of mandatory training and think codes of conduct are a good tool for increasing awareness. Not least of the reasons for my support being that the Federation of American Scientists arguably has the most extensive dual-use training materials available to date in the form of our multimedia Case Studies in Dual-Use Research. Wide distribution of these case studies and materials created by other groups has been a goal of ours from the time we started the project.

The problem is that we (myself included) have not taken the long-view on this issue. If we dramatically increase awareness, then we also increase the chances that scientists will have concerns about dual-use research or worse—suspicions that a colleague is up to no good. What the NSABB, National Research Council and the biosecurity community on the whole have failed to fully address is how those researchers should attend to their concerns. Government-issued guidelines for researchers will only get them so far.

Since part of the duty of a responsible researcher will certainly be reporting unsafe experiments or suspicious behavior, instituting codes of conduct and training all scientists makes potential whistleblowers out of every working biologist. This creates an immediate need for protocols and methods for scientists to get advice and report their concerns.

There is currently no reliable independent system in place for these researchers to report or receive advice on how to handle their concerns.

It is well recognized that a major barrier to reporting such incidents to law enforcement, supervisors, biosafety officers, or institutional review boards, is the fear of reprisal. This might also be compounded by some members of the scientific community not trusting government officials and law enforcement in particular. This extends from laboratory technicians and support staff to primary investigators. Even if there is no indication of foul play, scientists may feel that there are experiments being conducted at their institution that have serious dual-use implications, or that are dangerous to those conducting them and their colleagues.

There is currently no reliable independent system in place for these researchers to report or receive advice on how to handle their concerns. Such a system would be a valuable contribution to strengthening biosecurity awareness and participation within the biological research community. It should be pointed out that such a system is a good way to get across the idea that official whistle-blowing is not the first and only resort.

I and others have suggested that we need to build a secure Internet-based system where scientists will be able to report their concerns and receive advice and recommendations on the steps that they should or should not take. Concerns will naturally run the range of how to fill out dual-use reporting forms on grants to reporting potentially illegal situations in the lab. It is important that the government not operate the system to ensure buy in. Rather, an ombudsman network should be run by a non-government organization that will allow partial anonymity.

In the event that a clear cause of action is required, such as when a law is being broken, a non-government organization would be well-placed to help facilitate conversations with law enforcement, make queries on the behalf of the scientist to government, or alleviate concerns without endangering their status at the institute.

The system will have to be backed by a large group of advisors, including experts from multiple science disciplines, ethicists, legal and law enforcement representatives to ensure that users are receiving timely and accurate advice. The system administrator will have to be available at all times and have constant access to advisors in the case of a serious problem.

One major concern of scientists will be the preservation of anonymity. This issue can be simply handled by having staff farm out the query to advisors without revealing the identity of the scientist. Total anonymity, however, cannot be completely preserved in such a system.

In principle, users will turn to this system when they feel uncomfortable reporting concerns within their institution or when they are unsure of who to turn to. Responses will either ask for further information, clarification, or report back advice on the appropriate course of action.

Users must also feel comfortable that the information they divulge will not be released to anyone unless they approve it. This can be accomplished by making users agree to simple terms before sending their query. Those terms will detail operation standards and will inform users under which conditions the managers have a legal responsibility to inform appropriate authorities, and that they may be contacted by such authorities directly in the event that a law has been or is about to be broken.

Detailed records of responses and customizable electronic form letters will allow us to provide useful assistance and inform users of their rights and the laws that might apply to them in a timely manner. It should be stressed that in the event a user reports an imminent threat, they will automatically receive instructions on who they should contact. There are several important issues that will have to be addressed while developing a biosecurity reporting system, among them:

Whistleblower Laws. The United States has a well-established set of “whistleblower” laws that protect people from reprisals for reporting. There are several excellent non-profit groups that specialize in this area and it will be important to bring them in for legal advice and possibly to present a series of Frequently Asked Questions on the site for scientists to learn about their options.

Legal Advice. We will need legal advice on a broad range of issues, including the liability associated with giving advice, maintaining anonymity, the situations under which those with knowledge of possible crimes are legally obligated to contact law enforcement, and applicable laws for users.

Advisory Boards. An advisory board consisting of scientists, ethicists, biosecurity experts, and legal advisors will have to be brought in for the design and implementation. A second advisory board will have to be available for advice on individual cases. It will be important to have a wide array of expertise and knowledge on hand to address any reports that come in.

Law Enforcement Guidelines. A clear relationship with law enforcement will need to be established so that in the event that there is a user who is uncomfortable going to law enforcement themselves, we would be able to report an incident on their behalf.

Testing. It will be necessary to test the system through a series of table-top scenarios that provide challenges to our response times and content.

It is a virtual certainty that this type of system would eventually be abused maliciously against other scientists trying to slow down a competitor, or exact revenge. In that sense, the system itself would have dual-use potential and like science, safeguards and awareness will reduce, but might not eliminate, unfortunate incidences.

It is also hard to predict how often such a system would be used and what percentage of the time it would receive cranks. But it is equally unclear to what degree dual-use research is a threat to national security. If we are going to require scientists to learn about the potential for misuse, then it is essential that they have a place to turn if they recognize potential misuse or have questions about complying with legal and ethical requirements.

Michael Stebbins is the Director of Biology Policy for the Federation of American Scientists, President of the SEA Action Fund and author of Sex, Drugs and DNA: Science’s Taboos Confronted.