Early assessment of science versus security vital for biosecurity

3 December 2013

Early awareness of the potential misuse of life science research will help reduce risk and avoid controversy later regarding the publication of research results. A new Biosecurity Advisory Committee would facilitate dialogue between scientists and security experts about dual-use research.

These are the conclusions of a committee established by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. The purpose of the committee was to advise the Dutch State Secretary for Education, Culture and Science on this subject.

The Academy had already issued a Code of Conduct for Biosecurity in 2007 in an effort to raise awareness among researchers of the potential misuse of life science data for criminal or terrorist purposes. The public debate that ensued after the Dutch government banned publication of virologist Ron Fouchier’s bird flu study (2012) led the State Secretary, Sander Dekker, to ask the Academy to advise on dual-use research.

One of the main recommendations in the committee’s recent report, Improving Biosecurity. Assessing dual-use research, is that scientists and security experts – two groups that often operate separately from each other – should communicate at an early stage of research in order to assess any risks involved.

The ability to advise on research with potential dual-use aspects requires expertise in multiple areas: the science involved, laboratory security, and national and international threat analysis. That is why the Academy recommends establishing a Biosecurity Advisory Committee for Research in the Life Sciences. This new committee would ideally come under the authority of the Health Council of the Netherlands.

Considering biosecurity aspects at an early stage of research will promote security and avoid controversy later on. It is crucial for researchers to be aware of potential risks and remain so. This important issue should be considered at length, both in the laboratory and above all in university education programmes. The Code of Conduct for Biosecurity will therefore remain in full effect.

The advisory report Improving Biosecurity. Assessing dual-use research was compiled by an Academy committee chaired by Prof. Lous van Vloten-Doting. The committee was assisted by a focus group made up of researchers working in various disciplines and representatives of professional associations, research institutions, industry and government.

The advisory report Improving Biosecurity. Assessing dual-use research can be ordered from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). A PDF of the original report can also be downloaded from the Academy’s website.