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Biology and Security

An Interview with Dr. Stephanie Loranger

Dr. Stephanie Loranger is Biology Issues Project Director at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), a non-profit organization focused on the use of science of technology. Before joining FAS, Ms. Loranger consulted for the NCI and EPA for 6 months. She remains a contributing member of both the American Society of Cell Biology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She received her B.S. in Biology at Boston College, and her Ph.D. in Biology and Biomedical Sciences with a concentration in Molecular Cell Biology at Washington University.

Please briefly explain your position at the Federation of American Scientists.

I am the Biology Issues Director; I handle most of the projects at FAS that have any biology component. The largest project I direct is the biosecurity project. This involves coordinating policy studies and advocacy in areas relating to the responsible use of science and technology, focusing on biological weapons and biosecurity, and developing course material for biomedical students to strengthen sensitivity to potential illicit research and encourage reflection and debate about the responsible use of science.

Do you believe that the government's reactions to bioterrorism fears--for example, President Bush's recent call for protecting the nation's food supply- have been effective? Have these reactions had a particularly strong impact on the scientific community?

This is not a subject on which I am well versed. So no comment.

In your opinion, what would be the optimal relationship the government and the scientific community could have, given today's bioterrorism fears? Would certain agencies or organizations aid discussion between both groups? What do you consider the biggest obstacle to better relations between government and scientists?

The biggest obstacle between the government and scientists is a lack of understanding-on both sides-as to how each community "works." Scientists need for every decision to be based on data and facts, whereas government decisions are often nuanced. Conversely, government agents do not understand the scientific culture and process. Biodefense is a perfect example of this. The government has poured a couple of billion dollars in to biodefense research, and many in Congress and the administration are expecting returns on this investment in the form of new vaccines and countermeasures. It is, however, going to take years if not a decade to develop new vaccines to bioterror agents. I believe it is incumbent on the scientists and the NIH to communicate the realities of biodefense research. Furthermore, it is my opinion that the NIH must do a better job of outlining research priorities in biodefense. It is pointless and wasteful to have several groups
developing a vaccine to smallpox and not have any labs focusing on ricin, for example.

The media regularly focuses on the Bush Administration's relationship with the scientific community. Some accuse reporters of portraying the government in an overly negative light. Do you feel such negative portrayals of the Administration's scientific outlook are accurate? Has the media exaggerated the friction between government agencies and scientists?

I do not think the media, certain members of Congress, nor non-governmental organizations have exaggerated the tension between the administration and scientists. The recent dismissal of Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn from the President's Council on Bioethics illustrates the point very nicely. In his 2001 speech announcing the creation of the Council, President Bush said the Council would include strong representation from leading scientists. The dismissal of Dr. Blackburn significantly undermines the ability of Councilors to base their considerations on the foundation of sound science. Even before Dr. Blackburn's dismissal, scientists were heavily outnumbered by nonscientists with strong anti-research ideological views. Now it will be even more unlikely than before that the Council will be able to make informed ethical decisions. Dr. Blackburn had been outspoken in her insistence that the Council consider the moral cost of forgoing potentially lifesaving research, and was frequently at odds with the Council Chairman, Leon Kass.

I believe that it is the responsibility of NGOs (like FAS) to illustrate the disregarding of science when making policy decisions. In that light, I am working with several other scientists here at FAS to write a report on the use of science in policymaking.

Thomas Butler's guilty conviction in December largely arose from charges of fraud and embezzlement. Meanwhile, he was cleared of most charges regarding the biological samples he reported missing when first arrested. Do you feel that the issues this case raises for the scientific community have changed with this conviction?

To be honest, I am not sure what effect the conviction of Thomas Butler has had on the scientific community. Nevertheless, I do think that his trial and conviction, taken together with new laws concerning the use of select agents, has had some effect on the community. First, you have to understand that only a small percentage of the community performs research with select agents, or deal the issues in the Butler case. I think that for that large percentage of the community that does not work with select agents, there is little concern, and even knowledge of the specifics of the Butler case. I think that for the small percentage of the research community that does use select agents, some issues of concern were raised. I do believe that scientists are now aware that they will be held to the standards of the law where their research is concerned. However, in my opinion, I think what this will do is make scientists think twice before reporting "missing vials." If possible, I believe they will handle situations that arise internally and only inform the authorities when absolutely necessary. In that way I think the government did itself a disservice with the overly zealous prosecution of Dr. Butler.

Various federal agencies and scientific organizations, such as the Office of Management Bureau and the National Academies, have suggested new methods of peer review. All such suggestions come from concerns regarding the possible misuse of scientific publications. Do you feel the current system can sufficiently address such concerns? Do you believe the scientific community should regulate itself? Should government maintain some form of active control?

On Thursday, March 4, 2004, the administration announced a biosecurity policy designed to prevent bioterrorists from using legitimate research results to create novel bioweapons while still ensuring open communication among researchers. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy G. Thompson announced that HHS will lead a government-wide effort to improve biosecurity measures for classes of legitimate biological research that could be misused to threaten public health or national security, often referred to as "dual-use" research. This move follows the recommendations of a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report released in October 2003, "Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism: Confronting the Dual-Use Dilemma". As a first step in this process, Secretary Thompson announced the creation of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB). The new board will advise all federal departments and agencies that conduct or support life sciences research that could fall into the "dual-use" category.

Creation of the NSABB, while an important step, is only one step toward a comprehensive national biosecurity policy. There are many unanswered questions, and the devil will be in the details; however, this policy is a step in the right direction. The goal is to take proactive steps to prevent the use biotechnology tools and pathogens as terrorist agents, without stifling legitimate research. A heavy-handed approach to governing biological research is not feasible given the nature of the research, and will only stifle the creation of medical therapies. The only way to monitor dual-use biology is through self-regulation and codes of conduct. I hope the new NSABB will provide the nation's scientists with the guidance to establish a code of conduct and a culture of responsibility in the life science research community.

Regarding the Biological Weapons Convention: the United States dismissed the results of the Ad Hoc Group in 2001, leading to a new round of talks that continue today. Do you feel the reasons cited by the United States--such as the unique nature of biological weapons versus conventional or chemical weapons--justify its actions?

I do not think there is anything wrong with the BWC, but neither do I think that it solves the question of how to prevent the creation and proliferation of biological weapons. I do think that biotechnology poses different challenges than either nuclear or chemical weapons technology. The old paradigm of nuclear weapons security is simply not going to work for biosecurity, and unfortunately, the BWC does not really take the differences into account. I do not think that a verification protocol is going to solve the problem; and in this political climate, verification is simply not tenable. Biological weapons cannot be countered with greater investments in conventional security systems or traditional treaty-based limits on proliferation. They demand creative new approaches to domestic controls and must actively involve the biology research community - who may never have participated in security issues.

Submitted by:
William Yoon, American University, spring/summer 2004 intern