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Last Updated

06 Nov 2002

Source: Los Angeles Times, September 30, 2002.


Labs Under the Microscope

In expanding the bioterrorism act, the government must be sensitive to the divide between national security and academic freedom.

At a hearing two months after 9/11, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked FBI Assistant Director James T. Caruso a simple question: "How many labs handle anthrax in the United States?" Caruso's reply was, "We don't know that at this time." We still don't know.

Universities were supposed to comply with the first provision of the new Bioterrorism Preparedness Act -- notifying federal authorities if they possess Ebola, anthrax or 34 other dangerous biological agents -- on Sept. 10. Many haven't done it. Schools that object should read an editorial in this week's Science, an influential academic magazine, chiding scientists for not taking national security seriously enough: "Those working in sensitive areas must ... emphasize the positive role of science and technology in addressing human needs and the immorality of their use to cause mass casualties and human suffering."

That doesn't mean scientists should go along with whatever the government wants, in the name of security. Knee-jerk reactions on either side are dangerous.

In a ham-handed gesture, President Bush this year proposed to transfer oversight of bioterror research from the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Health and Human Services, which understand science, to the Department of Homeland Security, which doesn't.

Now the administration is considering expanding the bioterrorism act in clumsy ways. The act already allows the toughest federal scrutiny of universities' visa requests involving students from Libya, Sudan, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Cuba, the nations that the U.S. designates as incubators of terrorism. Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge also has asked for tighter checks of students coming from other countries, especially China. Ridge's agency is right to scrutinize certain applicants, since the 9/11 hijackers made such efficient use of student visas. But it should be sensitive to universities' mission, too.

President Bush's science advisor, John Marburger, recently cautioned politicians about restricting science. Few state and federal elected officials, Marburger said, "appreciate the delicate complexity of academic life, or its dependence on openness, its insistence on individual responsibility and its critical need for freedom in its intellectual pursuits." That includes freedom to nurture new scientists like Daniel Tsui, a Nobel laureate at Princeton who won the 1998 prize in chemistry after emigrating from China as a foreign-exchange student.

Other new proposals would create a not-quite-classified "sensitive-information" category for government-owned research. Resident-alien scientists, for instance, wouldn't be allowed to store cell biology diagrams on laptops they could take home, because such equations theoretically could be used to make bioweapons.

As the American Society for Microbiology recently warned, the government could slow the very research that is underway to develop countermeasures to such weapons.

Government and universities have never had an easy coexistence. Less defensive communication on both sides could prevent damaging mistakes.