Expert: Government must implement effective dual-use research policy

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-Wis.), in an editorial for the Washington Times, said that the federal government must implement its new policy on dual-use research effectively to improve the country's biological security.

Sensenbrenner discussed the back and forth nature of the research controversy centered on the publication of two papers about the human-transmissible genetic mutation of the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus. At first, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity recommended against publishing the research, but the board reconvened three weeks later and changed its stance, the Washington Times reports.

After the decision, a leaked letter was released from Michael T. Osterholm, a member of the NSABB, stating that the decision to reverse the publication position was based on a biased presentation of evidence.

"The controversy surrounding the H5N1 study and the criticisms in Mr. Osterholm's letter confirm my suspicions that the U.S. government is woefully unprepared for dealing with dual use research of concern - research that, while conducted for a legitimate scientific purpose, could be dangerous if misused," Sensenbrenner said, according to the Washington Times. "In the present case, the government presumably did not address the risks of misuse until after the research was submitted for publication. Furthermore, once the NSABB recommended against publication, the government had no mechanism for sharing the research on a limited basis with those researchers with a legitimate need to analyze the results."

In March, Sensenbrenner wrote a letter to John P. Holdren, the policy director of the Office of Science and Technology, about the government's policy on dual-use research. A new policy was announced a few weeks later that would review research involving specific pathogens.

"If properly implemented, the administration's new, albeit belated, policy for life science review could help identify sensitive research, but it does nothing to address the government's inability to control its dissemination if necessary," Sensenbrenner said, according to the Washington Times. "By asking the NSABB to reconvene and steering the board toward reconsidering its recommendation, the administration has simply kicked that can down the road."

Sensenbrenner said he would further investigate the NSABB's actions and will see how the administration implements the new research policy.