The Controlling Dangerous Pathogens Project

Advanced biotechnology is a prime example of a global problem that cannot be managed solely by national action or traditional arms control techniques. Rapid advances in fundamental science offer the power to intervene in basic life processes and even alter evolution, for good or ill. Efforts to protect against the misuse of biotechnology without impeding beneficial research cannot mirror the access-control arrangements that have kept the most dangerous nuclear technology in the hands of a few governments. The relevant biological organisms, equipment, and knowledge are widely distributed in vibrant medical and agricultural research communities around the world, and are increasingly available even to high school students. Moreover, the threat cannot be reduced to a few mad scientists, suicidal terrorists, or rogue states. Legitimate science can create unintended dangers if a cutting-edge experiment has unexpected results, if findings from research done for benign purposes are misapplied by somebody else, or if the line between defensive and offensive bio-weapon activities becomes blurred in practice or perception. The relevant scientific communities, therefore, need to set research standards, to exchange information and monitor each others'' behavior, to exercise independent review of high-risk experiments, and to provide the expertise needed for an effective response should somebody operate out of bounds.

This project seeks to stimulate creative thinking and dialogue about the basic elements of what might be called a "protective oversight system" for biotechnology. A response that will do more good than harm should start by identifying which research activities pose the greatest danger, so the oversight system concentrates on the core of the problem and leaves untouched the vast majority of biological research and product development. Although a few known pathogens, such as smallpox, could be true weapons of mass destruction, the devastation that could be caused by existing pathogens pales in comparison to that from a bio-engineered pathogen that was both highly contagious and extremely virulent. The basic objective of a protective oversight system should be to provide reassurance that scientists operating in this high-risk/high-benefit zone pay close attention not only to bio-safety and physical security in their labs, but also to the broader public health and security implications of their research.

A protective oversight system would build on bedrock norms against using the life sciences for destructive purposes. It would harness the means that scientists have traditionally used to generate high-quality knowledge: the peer-review process and the willingness to share research results with other scientists. It would also seek to systematize, standardize, and harmonize the various governmental regulations, reporting requirements, and funding reviews that affect basic research with especially dangerous pathogens in the United States and abroad.

Unlike proposals to ban some research or prevent the publication of dangerous knowledge, protective oversight would primarily rely on the systematic disclosure of information needed for an independent expert review of high-risk/high-benefit research proposals and routine monitoring of research activities that could move into this especially dangerous zone. Systematic disclosure for protective oversight is not, however, the same thing as unrestricted publication of preliminary research ideas, proprietary information, or military secrets. Working out the practical details of a protective oversight arrangement involves numerous challenges, such as determining the least burdensome disclosure requirements for satisfactory reassurance about compliance with agreed research standards, and crafting legal protections against the misuse of disclosed information, and determining the appropriate institutional arrangements.

The Controlling Dangerous Pathogens Project relies on additional support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Ford Foundation.


Related Publications