Some life scientists already are taking steps to reduce the harmful potential of their research, suggests a new survey about “dual use” research—scientific work that also has military or security implications.
Without formal guidelines or government restrictions, researchers have in certain instances broken collaborations, abandoned or altered planned lines of work or restricted what they publish, says the report, which was jointly conducted by the U.S. National Research Council and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
At a press briefing yesterday, however, report chairman Ronald Atlas said it wasn’t clear that such drastic reactions were appropriate. For example, the scientists surveyed thought there was a 51 percent chance of a bioterrorism attack somewhere in the world in the next five years and a 35 percent chance such an attack would take place in the United States, but only a 28 percent chance that anyone’s dual-use research would contribute.
Atlas, a professor of biology at the University of Louisville, also warned repeatedly about the limitations of the survey. The questionnaire was mailed out to 10,000 members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science who work in the life sciences, but only about 1,600 fully completed it. “[This] may or may not be reflective of the broader scientific community,” he said. “Be careful how you interpret the data.”
It is more useful to think of the report as a framework for how to proceed with additional research or policy projects, he said. For example, the survey suggests that scientists largely favor more self-policing of potentially dangerous research projects as well as mandatory education on the potentials and pitfalls of dual-use research. The scientists offered substantially less support for formal certifications or greater government oversight.
One potential bias in the report was a larger-than-representative response by researchers working with “select agents,” potentially harmful biological toxins already subject to government scrutiny. One-quarter of respondents had handled such agents at some point, including, presumably, a large number of immunologists, virologists and molecular biologists. Part of the reason for commissioning the report were several advances in those fields, such as 2005 work reconstructing and testing the 1918 influenza virus, which is estimated to have killed between 20 million and 50 million people worldwide.
But concerns have been raised at some point in almost all fields of biology. Even if the effects may seem less immediate and less potentially catastrophic, for instance, the field of neuroscience received such scrutiny just a few months ago, when the National Academies released the report “Emerging Cognitive Neuroscience and Related Technologies.” The paper “identifies and explores several specific research areas that have implications for U.S. national security,” including lie detection using brain scans, cognition-enhancing drugs, chemical weapons that act on the brain and brain-machine interfaces. One of the paper’s committee members, in fact, was Jonathan Moreno, a professor of medical ethics and the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania; his Dana Press book “Mind Wars: Brain Research and National Defense,” predicted many of these concerns.