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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
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