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Scientific Openness and National Security after 9/11

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The events of 11 September 2001 and the anthrax letters have reignited the longstanding debate over scientific openness and national security. And for the first time, the life sciences community is the focus of concern. Recent proposals for self-governance are unlikely to provide sufficient reassurance that information, in the words of the Corson Report, "not directly and significantly connected with technology critical to national security" is not disclosed. A more formalized system for considering the security implications of biodefence and other dual-use research, including specific criteria for making decisions on dissemination restrictions or classification, is needed in order to maintain support for the very endeavours on which both public health and national security depend.

Fear of bioterrorism has emerged as a priority concern of American security policy as a result of the anthrax letters of 2001. That event resonating with the September 11 terrorist attacks crystallized a much more urgent sense of threat than had previously been perceived. It is now commonly assumed that malicious organizations will attempt to exploit the destructive potential of biotechnology, and it is also implicitly conceded that a dedicated effort is likely to succeed.

In response to this surge of fear, the American political system has sharply increased investment in biodefence research intended to provide protection against deliberate biological attack. Nowhere is this more true than at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which has seen its funding for biodefence grow by over 3,200%, from $53 million in fiscal year 2001 to a record $1.8 billion (requested) in fiscal year 2006.2 These funds have resulted in a 1,500% increase in the number of grants for research on anthrax, plague and other top biological warfare agents, from 33 between 1996-2000, to almost 500 between 2001 and January 2005.3 This research is dedicated to determining the character and magnitude of potential threat in order to develop better methods of protection. But at least some of this effort will assuredly identify more advanced methods of attack as well.

Elisa D Harris is a Senior Research Scholar at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland

John D Steinbruner is the Director of Center for International Security Studies at Maryland.

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