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Oversight of Dual-Use Biological Research: The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity

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Publication Date: April 2007

Publisher(s): Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service

Series: RL33342

Topic: Science and technology (Biology and biotechnology)


Policymakers have addressed the threat of biological weapons and biosecurity issues for many years. An issue garnering increased attention is the potential for life sciences research intended to enhance scientific understanding and public health to generate results that could be misused to advance biological weapon effectiveness. Such research has been called "dual-use" research because of its applicability to both biological countermeasures and biological weapons.

The federal government is a major source of life sciences research funding. Tension over the need to maintain homeland security and support scientific endeavor has led to renewed consideration of federal policies of scientific oversight. Balancing effective support of the research enterprise with security risks generated by such research has proven to be a complex challenge. Policies considered to address science and security generate tensions between the federal funding agency and the recipient of federal funding. To minimize these tensions while maximizing effective oversight of research, insight and advice from the disparate stakeholders is generally considered essential.

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) was established as one tool to aid policymakers and researchers in assessing the risks of federally funded research in the life sciences. It aims to provide the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and researchers a source for advice on dual-use research and other biosecurity issues. Advice rendered by the NSABB may shape research activities and standards practiced in life science research fields.

The NSABB is composed of experts in biological sciences, law, security, and other areas and federal officials representing agencies that fund life sciences research. Its responsibilities include identifying and defining dual-use research, advising the Secretary of Health and Human Services on biosecurity issues, and providing recommendations on an ethical code for life scientists. The issues the NSABB addresses are also being explored by professional societies, non-profit organizations, and other groups. Guidance and activities undertaken by the NSABB are likely to be closely scrutinized and challenged by stakeholder groups.

The success of the NSABB in addressing federal concerns related to biodefense and biosecurity may influence congressional action. Absent an existing, effectively utilized mechanism to deal with dual-use, federally funded research results, policymakers could act to develop an oversight mechanism or legislative solutions addressing this issue. Should the NSABB be successful in linking the scientific and security communities and developing guidelines for effective scientific selfoversight, the board could evolve into a forum that policymakers may use to consider the intersections of science and security. It is unclear whether the tools available to the federal government are adequate to assess and control security risks from federally funded research, or if additional authorities may ultimately need to be developed. This report will be updated as events warrant.