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The Definition and Measurement of Dangerous Research

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Both scientists and policy-makers are increasingly recognizing the potential and pitfalls of biotechnology in regards to biosecurity. The spread of biotechnology and biological research across the globe is revealing a great deal of information on the origins of human disease and microbial pathogenesis. There is great hope that the genetic, proteomic, and metabolomic information will yield new antimicrobial and immunological therapies and vaccines in upcoming years.

However, continued research into disease pathogenesis also has the potential to cause more harm than good without proper oversight. Although such a negative experimental outcome has not manifested itself yet, recent experiments into mouse host susceptibility to an engineered strain of mousepox and a smallpox complement inhibitor have pointed the way toward the need for greater debate, if not oversight, of scientific research into high-threat pathogens.

Mindful of the possible threat of this "scientific inadvertence," security studies experts at the University of Maryland have proposed a legally binding, global oversight system to deal with the threat presented by advanced pathogens.2 The so-called Biological Research Security System (BRSS) does not seek to ban any research. Rather, the BRSS wishes to develop legally enforceable "protective standards of prudence" by mandating independent peer review to assess not only the scientific merit and biosafety/physical security protocols for the research, but also its larger social consequences. Given the recent explosive growth in biodefense research funding and the access limitations to pathogen stocks based on nationalities, the lack of true research oversight is especially glaring.