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Academia's Biological Studies in War Time

An Interview with Dr. Richard F. Meyer

Dr. Richard F. Meyer serves as Laboratory Director of the Bioterrorism Rapid Response and Advanced Technology Lab, part of the National Center for Infectious Diseases Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program. The Bioterrorism Rapid Response and Advanced Technology Laboratory was established to investigate bioterrorist-related activities as part of Center for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) public health response to bioterrorism.

Dr. Meyer received his BS from Hunter College of the City University of New York, MS in medical microbiology from Long Island University, and a PhD at the University of Minnesota in molecular virology within the veterinary microbiology program. Dr. Meyer has been with the Federal Government for more than 29 years.

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

First of all, I don't speak for the CDC. Whatever I communicate to you are my own views.

I am the Director of the Bioterrorism Lab at CDC, and we do a lot of different types of work. We respond to the testing of specimens that come in for bioterrorism, develop rapid assay for detection of biothreat agents, and a bunch of other things including the evaluation of advanced technologies, training issues, and proficiency testing.

What, if any, changes to scientific openness within the life science community have you witnessed since the start of the war on terrorism? What do you think about these changes? What is your organization's policy or stance about these changes?

It is not business as usual any longer. The world has changed. Particularly post 9/11, it is a very different world. We are concerned with issues of bioterrosim, we're concerned that people want to do us harm. It's been proven in the past, and history speaks for itself. People have done harm and are trying to do harm to us. We are in the mode of prepardness and response. CDC, and the work that I do, was started about 4 years ago when the Congress designated Health and Human Services, which designated CDC to coordinate and lead the overall planning effort to upgrade national public health capabilities to respond to biological and chemical terrorism.

My feelings are that we can effectively communicate a lot of good scientific info about the work that we do without giving away the nitty gritty details. [Details] that would then allow someone who wanted to counteract what we were doing, to then simply pick up one of these scientific publications, and there it is laid out in black and white—all the very nitty gritty details, with the very specific information that could allow someone to counteract all of the work and effort that we put into getting to that point.

There are a lot of resources and a lot of time and effort expended over the past number of years, particularly from the federal level of doing this type of work, in order to be prepared to respond to a bioterrorism event based on significant public health issues. With all of that effort that goes into doing this work, to give [the information] away, just to get credit for scientific publication, doesn't make any sense whatsoever to me.

Is it possible to regulate the publication of biological research findings? Is the regulation of biological research finding plausible?

The main issue that I have is that a lot of the work that we do, particularly on molecular diagnostics, the specific sequence info for the assays that we have developed, a number of those are considered sensitive or classified info. There is good reason for that. I don't see anything wrong with communicating the work that was done on the development and the performance of an assay for detecting biothreat agents without having to reveal the specific sequence information, which is really the key to the test.

The problem is that most editors of scientific journals don't feel that way. They feel that if you submit a scientific communication, representing the work that was performed, the specifics of that work have to be communicated in the publication. In addition, they have taken the position that they will not publish, as a scientific communication unless the very specific information is included. The reason that they give for this position is that this is the normal way that science is performed and has always been done in order that other scientists can reproduce the work to make sure it is valid.

We can't sacrifice giving out that very specific information because of all of the effort and resources that went into developing these types of test, in order to be prepared to respond to bioterrorism. And if we go down that road, we're just giving away the house to people that want to do us harm.

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

If an academic scientist was working in my area, they most likely would just go ahead and publish what they have, and give out the information, because nothing holds them back from doing that. My assumption, from talking with fellow scientists in academia who are used to publishing, since that is how they get scored for doing their job, is that they wouldn't have a problem in communicating all of the specifics of something they are working on—unless they were given grant money from an organization or government agency that specifically stipulated that they wouldn't be able to communicate that information. Other than that, I don't think they would want to hold back since they are used to publishing and they want to get credit for the work they do. They would be more inclined to give out that information.

Is there a way to balance the needs of national security and the scientific community? Are there possible alternatives that would address the question of national security?

There are ways of communicating where you're not just communicating in a forum that's open to anyone that wants to get their hands on that information. There are mechanisms for communicating in a more secured way the type of scientific information that can be used for good, as opposed to just putting out the information to the general public where the bad people out there can get a hold of the information. Now [the bad people] can read step by step how to make a bad bug. It's a trade off, you see. That's the fine line we walk in this area right now.

Over the next two years, what direction do you think the Bush administration will steer the nation regarding bioscience regulations?

I have not seen any indication from the Administration that they're addressing this issue directly or setting policies. Working for the federal government, I think I would have a little more insight into developing policies. I have not really seen that from the Administration. I think they have kind of left it up to the scientific community to work out.

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

Research the issue, talk with people and come to an opinion and express that opinion in an open forum, whether it be a letter to a journal or some other form of communication.

Submitted by: Liz Walsh, Education Program Coordinator