Heeding the advice of the National Academy of Sciences, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has created a board to advise federal departments or agencies on biological research that could pose a threat to national security. The new National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), announced by HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson March 4, will advise the government on developing guidelines for overseeing “dual-use” research, which has potential for both civilian and military applications.
HHS views the board’s creation as the first step in a broader effort to enhance biosecurity—measures designed to minimize the chance that biological research for civilian purposes could be also used to create biological weapons. As the development of biological sciences have rapidly advanced, concern has increased about the possibility that research intended to improve life might instead be used for its destruction. HHS created the board partly in response to an October 2003 report by the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council.
One of the NSABB’s primary tasks is to provide the government with advice on ways to identify dual-use research and to help develop guidelines for judging the risks and benefits of such research. The board, which will include up to 25 voting members from the scientific and security communities, will also work with scientific journal editors to develop guidelines to prevent the publication of research that is too dangerous for public dissemination while maintaining the free flow of ideas among the scientific and security communities. Other tasks include advising on the development of guidelines for programs to educate scientists on biosecurity issues, providing assistance to develop a code of conduct for scientists, and working to advance biosecurity measures and education internationally. In addition, the board may review specific proposed experiments but has no authority to deny or approve them. The National Institutes of Health will manage the NSABB.
There are important limits on the NSABB’s mandate, most importantly that it is confined to an advisory role. Moreover, the board will make suggestions only to government institutions or scientists receiving federal funding, not to independent commercial laboratories. Classified government research also falls outside the board’s scope. In addition, the board lacks any enforcement capability; it cannot enforce any of its recommendations or approve or deny experiment proposals.
In deciding to create the NSABB, officials chose the middle-of-the-road option in the debate over how best to strengthen biosecurity without limiting the free exchange of scientific ideas. Some scientists oppose government oversight, especially any possibility of restrictions on scientific publications. Others believe the board will help improve biosecurity without hampering scientists with bureaucratic red tape. At best, say some biosecurity advocates, the board is a first step. At worst, they say, it provides nothing more than a false sense of security.