NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Do New Security Rules Threaten Science?

August 13, 2002

University officials and leading scientists are warning that new government regulations on biological research adopted in the wake of Sept. 11, as well as government efforts to inhibit publication of data, threaten to undermine the fundamental openness of science and campus life.

  • The new rules on so-called select agents require about 190,000 research and diagnostic labs, scientists and manufacturers to notify federal authorities whether they have any of 36 pathogens that could be used to make biological weapons, or components of them that control virulence or toxicity.
  • The list will soon include 24 more livestock diseases and possibly more plant pathogens that may be named as potential sources for biological weapons.
  • Under the new rules, only researchers with a "legitimate need" may have access to the materials -- which will be barred to students or researchers from countries considered sponsors of terrorism and to people with felony or drug convictions or with histories of mental illness.
  • Many institutions are planning to build new high-security laboratories -- bucking the trend toward open spaces that encourage scientists to share knowledge and materials -- or throw up new walls in existing labs.

A faculty committee at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says that if the restrictions become too onerous, the institute should consider refusing any new work on campus on select agents.

Most universities and researchers say they appreciate the need for heightened security to thwart would-be terrorists, but they question whether some of the new rules are necessary or go too far. They note that many of the substances going under lock and key -- such as Ebola and Rift Valley fever -- are freely available in countries with outbreaks.

Source: Diana Jean Schemo, "Sept. 11 Strikes at Labs Doors," New York Times, August 13, 2002.


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