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Academia's Biological Studies in War Time

An Interview with Dr. Charles E. McQueary

Dr. Charles E. McQueary is Under Secretary for Science and Technology (S&T), Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The S&T Directorate coordinates the DHS's efforts in research and development, including preparing for and responding to the full range of terrorist threats involving weapons of mass destruction. These efforts include working with scientific institutions, such as the national laboratories and academic institutions, to sponsor research, development, and testing to invent new vaccines, antidotes, diagnostics, and therapies against biological and chemical warfare agents.

Dr. McQueary holds both a PhD in Engineering Mechanics and an MS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Texas, Austin.

Please briefly describe the role of the Department of Homeland Security in the debate around balancing scientific openness and national security.

Certainly a role that the Department of Homeland Security would play would be to help the country and the President decide what kind of action should be taken, if any, in the area of biological studies, as well as any other field. I would also hasten to add that we would not be the only agency doing this—this is not a role that DHS takes on all by itself. We obviously have strong interests in the area of research, not only in the biological sciences, but also in any other area that relates to homeland security related technology. Therefore, in this sense we would be in the mode of acting as an advisor or perhaps an advocate if some issue came up that was of particular importance to homeland security.

What, if any, changes to scientific openness within the bioscience community have you witnessed since the start of the war on terrorism? What do you think about these changes?

I have only been in this position, officially, since March 21st, 2003, so I'm relatively new and would not be in a position to comment upon what has gone on over the past year and a half, because I haven't been around. I wouldn't want to just answer that based upon what I might have read in some local newspaper or news source of the sort. I will address this issue since the time period I have been in this position.

The policy of this administration is the same as the policy that was set forth during the Reagan Administration under the National Security Decision Directive 189, which continues to be the long established policy. In fact, it is quite remarkable when you look at how long this policy has been in existence. In addition, [NSDD 189] was reaffirmed by Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice on November 1st, 2001. The official policy for the Administration continues to be that which has been put forth in this directive.

However, there has been considerable discussion, not only by some members of Congress, but in the open literature within the country, in which people are beginning to raise the question as to whether there are issues in the biological research that should be examined in different ways. In particular, this examination probably came about as a result of the anthrax attacks that we had right after 9/11/01. Also, as we know, biological weapons pose a significant challenge for [the US] in terms of being able to deal with them, and also being able to provide effective counter measures for them. So I think it is logical that this is an area that should be examined and talked about in a public debate.

What is your department's policy/stance about these changes? Is it possible to regulate the publication of bioscience research findings? Is the regulation of biological research findings plausible? Is there a way to balance the needs of national security and the scientific community?

[The DHS] has not taken any kind of public position in writing, so let me take my own views. If Secretary Ridge asked me for those views, these would be the ones I would give to him. I think the scientific community needs to develop and establish the criteria for deciding what is good research and what is bad research in the biological sciences. I think we typically find the government getting involved in such regulation when there seems to be a void of recommendations or positions being held by the particular communities that are affected.

From my stand point, I would very much like to see those who are engaged in biological research and those who have a strong vested interest in this work, helping with the issue of deciding what the areas are where we either do or do not need regulation. Perhaps there are some areas, just because of the very sensitive nature of the work, for which there might need to be some regulation. So bottom line, the scientific community bears a major responsibility in helping craft the position that the country should take in this regard.

It is very important that we try to focus our energies on the areas where we have complete agreement, so that we can be in a better position to discuss the items for which, presumably, there may not be full agreement. I'm just speculating, but any time you have something as complex as this issue is, it is almost inevitable that there will be some areas for disagreement. Nevertheless, the real strength, just to repeat myself, can come from the scientific community coming forth with a well thought-out, well-structured view of how the country should deal with this issue.

How would regulations affect academics in the United States, especially compared to their international colleagues?

Without knowing what [regulations] might come forth, it would be difficult for me to comment upon that. However, I would observe that in the area of biological research there is a heavy international component. To have one set of regulations for people in the US, and then not have any ability to determine what goes on in the international community would seem, to me, to not be a particularly good thing to do.

Are there possible alternatives that would address the question of national security?

I think it would be presumptuous of me to try and outline all of the issues right now, because I have to confess I'm not as well versed in this as perhaps I should be because of my newness to this job. In addition, we've had many things that have required my attention since I have actually gotten on board. Nevertheless, I certainly think we need to look at the full range of possibilities, always leaning in the direction, if we can, that there not be government regulations on the research that is being done. I think there is great benefit, when it doesn't compromise national security, to be able to openly publish results of scientific research. For the time being, and I want to say for the time being, the current policy is just that of the NSDD 189, which we talked about earlier. This particular directive spells out, just about as clearly as anything possibly could, what the position is—that research is either classified or it is not classified, but not in-between.

Over the next two years, what direction would you like to see the DHS steer the nation regarding bioscience regulations?

I would not be presumptuous in saying what I think the Administration will and will not do. However, I will say that this area will continue to generate a considerable amount of interest throughout the scientific community, as well as in the area of general homeland security protection, because the biological threats as we know them, constitute one of the more difficult areas for our country's protection. Therefore, my personal expectations would be that we will continue to have a very spirited dialogue among all interested parties on this subject. Furthermore, following what we normally do, I would say that after we have this dialogue, the country will decide through the Administration what its policy needs to be in order to deal with this issue.

Is there a role students can play in the struggle between scientific openness and national security?

I would certainly hope that those scientists who are closest to the students would seek their input. It is my personal view that the students certainly would have valuable input that could be helpful in deciding what the formulating position should be as we go forward. The way that I run my job is to listen to as many people as I can, and then we ultimately have to decide what course of action we want to take after that. Moreover, the students certainly have a very interesting and very important perspective to be brought to this important issue.

Submitted by: Liz Walsh, Education Program Coordinator