Which control mechanisms will work?

By Gigi Kwik Gronvall, January 9, 2008

I strongly disagree with Iris Hunger’s assertion that history teaches us that biological
expertise can’t be purchased. One obvious counterargument is that history is full of achievements
that were thought to be unlikely, even impossible, that is, until someone proved otherwise. This is
particularly the case in the realm of inventions (and weapons) stemming from scientific
advancements. But there is also the matter of proof: While most former bioweapons scientists may
not have switched allegiances for money, is there evidence that
none of them have? What about ordinary scientists who had no ties to bioweapons
programs–is it possible that not one of thousands of scientists could be bought?

I also wonder about how truly important the tacit knowledge of weaponization is to a prospective
bioweaponeer. Could direct information from a bioweapons program help a trained scientist design a
weapon? I have no doubt that it could. But could the lack of direct experience be overcome with
trial and error, a background in laboratory work, and perhaps knowledge gleaned from everyday
biological controls (such as
certain bacteria on crops to repel insects
) or biologics pharmaceutical manufacturing? It seems
foolhardy to bet otherwise. After all, people who have made bioweapons had to learn at some point,
and presumably, technological advances in biology have made that learning curve less steep.

In this round of comments, I would like to hear what my fellow discussants think about several
specific proposed control mechanisms for science. Some have been taken from the “Synthetic
Genomics: Options for Governance” report I mentioned in a previous comment. I invite my fellow
discussants to suggest additional methods that they would either consider or reject to control the
misuse of scientific research:

  • requiring gene firms or oligonucleotide manufacturers to screen orders for potentially
    dangerous sequences;
  • requiring gene firms or oligonucleotide manufacturers to store their orders, in case
    attribution becomes necessary;
  • requiring licensing of those who order sequences from gene firms or oligonucleotide
    manufacturers, or requiring licensing scientists more generally.

Screening orders for potentially dangerous sequences is technically possible, and could prevent
or mitigate an attack. However, it would be very important to establish what would be done if a
suspicious sequence is detected, and if further investigation reveals that it was ordered by a
researcher who has no obvious reason to order the sequence. I don’t think it would be useful to
involve the FBI for every sequence order that seems suspect, particularly as judgments are unlikely
to be cut and dry. It would also be important to minimize the burden on the private companies that
would be responsible for screening orders and reporting them; screening would be done at a cost,
and in a global marketplace, it could place firms at a competitive disadvantage. Similarly, a
reporting structure would need to minimize the burden on the company. For example, it may prove
more advantageous to not report if the firm is shut down while an investigation commences. If those
measures are in place, requiring gene firms to store their orders appears to be a minimal burden,
and could help in an investigation.

I have sympathy with those who think that every scientist in a lab should be licensed, because
many professions require licensing, and why should science be different? For example, engineers,
electricians, hair stylists, and manicurists require a license to work. I also understand the
rationale of scientists who oppose this concept and point to the degree on their wall and say, “See
this PhD? This is my license.” In the end, however, I think that a licensing regime would be very
expensive and should be reserved for work in Biosafety Level-3 and Biosafety Level-4 laboratories.
In this high-containment environment, researchers have access to, and have the potential to be
exposed to diseases that may be immediate public health dangers. The public relies on these
scientists to handle biological agents safely. A licensing regime may help to ensure that, at the
very least, these workers receive safety training. I look forward to hearing others’ opinions!