SCIENTISTS FACE BACKGROUND CHECKS 



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Last Updated

12 Mar 2003

Source: San Francisco Chronicle, March 12, 2003

Scientists face background checks

FBI requires fingerprints from thousands of scientists -- Anthrax, bioterror researchers are targeted

Bernadette Tansey, Chronicle Staff Writer

Starting today, thousands of established scientists must turn over their fingerprints and personal information to the FBI for background checks -- a new requirement for researchers who work with anthrax and other potential bioterror agents.

The measure is one of many new federal rules designed to tighten security at U.S. laboratories 18 months after anthrax-contaminated letters killed five people on the East Coast and cost the government $3 billion to decontaminate Senate offices and U.S. post offices.

But some scientists and academic leaders say the unprecedented restrictions threaten to poison the atmosphere of scientific openness that has made the United States pre-eminent in many areas of research, including bioterror defense.

"Many of us believe the most important measure we can take to prevent harm from terrorist attacks is to maintain our technical and intellectual brain trust," said M.R.C. Greenwood, chancellor of UC Santa Cruz. "In the long run, this could protect us more than locking a few people out of the lab."

Under the new rules, citizens of Iraq, Iran, North Korea and other countries suspected of supporting terrorism are disqualified from handling about 60 biological agents ranging from smallpox to botulism, a neurotoxin that is routinely used to study nerve pathways.

Also barred from working with these "select agents" are those with a history of mental illness, illegal drug use, felony convictions or dishonorable discharges from the military. The FBI has a June deadline to complete its background checks, after which some scientists may find themselves reassigned.

Concerns about the new restrictions have been widely expressed at California universities.

PRIVACY ISSUES

At Stanford, Associate Dean of Research Ann Arvin said the rules raise privacy issues. Stanford professors are not being required to inquire about their students' or staffers' mental health records and other personal matters. State privacy laws and university policy would probably forbid it.

Instead, each researcher will be informed about the restrictions and instructed to fill out the FBI form truthfully. But Arvin said faculty members are concerned that some researchers might be ruled out because of unsubstantiated rumors or because they're gay.

"It came to our minds immediately that somebody could have had a dishonorable discharge because of a sexual preference," Arvin said.

Ronald Atlas, president of the American Society for Microbiology, has warned that the huge initiative to register and investigate as many as 20,000 lab workers this spring could paralyze research just as the government is urging these labs to intensify bioterror defense work.

Delays in implementing stricter immigration controls imposed after the Sept.

11 terrorist attacks are already hampering research projects at the University of California, said Robert Dynes, chancellor of UC San Diego.

Dynes said his Chinese post-doctoral student Ke Chen has been stuck in Beijing for more than seven months waiting for a visa renewal. As a result, a physics research project with potential military applications is on hold. "It's hamstrung," Dynes said.

CHALLENGE FOR FBI

Stephen Ostroff, acting director of the new security program for potential bioterror agents at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, acknowledged that it could be a challenge for the FBI to complete its background checks by the June deadline.

But Ostroff said any delay shouldn't be a significant obstacle to labs applying for government anti-terror grants this year.

Some experts say the East Coast anthrax attacks in 2001 forced biologists to acknowledge that their research has a dark side. Biologists now are having to deal with security questions that nuclear physicists have lived with for decades, they say.

"There is genuine concern in the biological research community, in what for them is a disturbing awakening -- that the public thinks they may do bad things," said Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker, dean of the University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law and former general counsel to the National Security Agency and the CIA.

In the aftermath of the 2001 attacks, lawmakers were shocked to find that the government had no clear data on how many U.S. labs possessed anthrax and other deadly germs. Only those that shipped such material to other locations had been required to register.

As a result, Congress passed new laws requiring up to 1,200 public and private labs to submit to an extensive approval process, install locks and identity checkpoints, and keep accurate inventories of dangerous agents. Scientists who possess the dangerous agents in violation of the rules can draw prison terms up to 10 years and hefty fines.

LABS' OBJECTIONS

But in comments filed with the CDC, universities have complained that the regulations are often vague, give labs little time to comply and offer no subsidies for security measures that could cost some labs hundreds of thousands of dollars.

What's more, they say, biological agents are intrinsically more difficult to control than sensitive high-tech gear or nuclear components.

Lab experts have challenged the CDC to be specific: How do you keep an inventory of the quantities of organisms that can multiply themselves? How do you control access to biological agents that occur in nature, like anthrax or plague?

Some researchers argue that, in the end, the restrictions may be ineffective. Instead of stealing a vial, lab insiders could withdraw a small portion of a living germ culture and then grow it into a larger colony. Anthrax can be cultured from infected animals.

Ostroff said no system the government could devise would be foolproof. "Having said that, there's no question in my mind that the revised regulations are a significant enhancement to what was in place before," Ostroff said. "Many in the (scientific) community recognized that there were gaping holes and lax practices at many facilities that handled these agents."