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Academia's Biological Studies in War Time

Academic scientists play a vital role in the development of technologies to protect national security. Following the tragic anthrax mailings last year, the nation turned to the science community to develop better safeguards and technologies to deal with biological threats. At the same time, policy makers implemented new legislation and regulations in an attempt to prevent the criminal activity involved in such attacks. As these laws and requirements have come into effect, faculty and students are facing unexpected challenges in defining their roles and responsibilities in the war on terrorism.

Since the 1950s, the US has developed policies and methods, such as the classified system, to control the spread of scientific information pertaining to national security. Historically, the concern over balancing scientific openness and national security has centered on the mathematical, engineering and physical sciences and their applications, such as nuclear weapons, optics, and advanced computer technology. Recently, biological research has reemerged as an area of concern because of its potential application in biological weapons of mass destruction. The nature of biological research, however, presents new challenges to developing regulation methods. Do the policies and methods developed to control the complex technologies required for nuclear weapons or cryptology effectively apply to the basic science of the biological fields? How can a naturally occurring substance, such as anthrax, be kept out of the "wrong" hands?

These unresolved questions presented by biological research are affecting universities around the US as academic scientists try to answer the call to develop new countermeasures. Normally considered as open and public institutions, universities decline to conduct classified research, which requires controlled access to academic laboratories, materials, and findings. As much of biological research has not been traditionally classified, research has been easily and willing conducted at US universities, where many of the most talented students and faculty come from around the world to study and teach. This openness has greatly contributed to the development of one of the strongest scientific communities in the world. How can this openness and the US leadership be maintained while protecting national security interests?

The Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002, which restricts and monitors access to certain biological agents, was created as a response by lawmakers in an attempt to protect national security. Under this Act, researchers possessing any of the select agents are now required to register with the Department of Health and Human Services and keep their inventory under strict control. Will limiting the access to biological agents discourage needed research in these fields? How can substances, such as Ebola, which reproduce naturally, be controlled and monitored? How can the security concerns be balanced with the public health needs?

Other laws, such as the USA Patriot Act and the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002, have been enacted to limit terrorists’ access to research being conducted in the US. An unintended consequence of this new legislation has directly affected more than 30% of graduate students studying science—international students who are facing long delays in their visa requests to come to the US. These students are also now subject to new monitoring and regulations once they have arrived at their university. Will these new delays and restrictions dissuade international students and scholars from attending US universities? How will the US scientific community maintain its leadership if the best and the brightest go elsewhere? Will regulating student visas prevent the next terrorist from learning how to develop biological weapons?

Finally, though no law has been enacted, as of yet, the regulation of scientific publications is of great concern in the debate around balancing the needs of scientific openness and national security. The publication of research results, allowing for peer review and sharing of information, is key to the current scientific process. As the research conducted at universities is historically unclassified, no regulations have been placed on the publication of the findings resulting from such research. Security specialists and some scientists have now raised concerns that the unrestricted publication of such methods may provide a "cookbook" for terrorists. The scientific community is striving to address these concerns itself, before the government imposes outside restrictions. How can the need to publish scientific methods, necessary for peer review, be balanced with security concerns? Would restricting the publication of results jeopardize public health interests by limiting the information available for researchers to develop the next vaccine? Does controlling this information, which may be available from other sources, protect national security?

"Traditional American values of openness in education and research must prevail. But this will be possible only if we in research universities contribute our talent to maintaining the security of our homeland, and if the Federal government and academia maintain a respectful, substantive, and effective dialogue between those who do science and those who are charged with protecting the nation." - Charles M Vest, President, MIT

Whatever solutions may result from the current debate around balancing scientific openness and national security in the biological sciences, many scientists and experts agree that, as Dr. Ronald Atlas, president of the American Society for Microbiology, said, "there must be international agreement and valuing of the incorporation of security considerations into the life sciences endeavor…And above all commitment to furthering science for the betterment of humankind."

This brief includes four articles that will present the different perspectives on this issue, as well as, three ethical questions that exhibit the scope of this debate. In addition, statistics and interviews with experts on this issue have been gathered to create a better understanding of this topic. Finally, a list of suggested books, web sites, articles, speakers, movies, law reviews, and legislation provide further research on the subject area.

-Submitted by:
Liz Walsh, Education Program Coordinator