[hackerspaces] [DIYBio-NYC] Science Magazine: Genspace engaging the Authorities

Bryan Bishop kanzure at gmail.com
Mon Dec 27 22:52:10 CET 2010

On Mon, Dec 27, 2010 at 3:45 PM, Daniel Grushkin wrote:

> Check out the article: “Science, Law Enforcement Build Biotech Bridges<http://www.sciencemag.org/content/330/6012/1766.full>
> .”

Science, Law Enforcement Build Biotech Bridges
 [image: Figure]

Genspace President Ellen Jorgensen (*left*) and FBI Supervisory Special
Agent Edward H. You (*right*).

With scientists working to create new life forms and amateur biology clubs
springing up nationwide, it stands to reason that the U.S. security
community would be concerned that one rogue researcher or one innocent error
might create a grave problem.

But before uneasiness could turn to conflict, the FBI, working closely with
AAAS, embraced a new strategy. The Bureau held conferences with university
and private sector researchers, attended synthetic biology science fairs,
and spent time with do-it-yourself (DIY) biologists. The message, though
tailored for each audience, was consistent.

"We want science and security communities to come to an understanding to
promote a culture of responsibility," says Edward H. You, an experienced
researcher and now the FBI supervisory special agent guiding the outreach
effort. By bringing those communities together, "we can…identify what some
of the risks and gaps might be, and then come up with strategies that make
sense to both communities to mitigate those risks and gaps."

A certain amount of uneasiness was inevitable after the deadly blitz of
anthrax letters that followed the 9/11 terror attacks and, more recently,
the stunning advances and increasing accessibility of biotech research. In
research published last May in *Science*, genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter
announced development of the first cell controlled by a synthetic genome.
That breakthrough underscored that biotech will likely create unpredictable
implications for science and society.

In a recent appearance at AAAS, bioethicist Thomas H. Murray said synthetic
biology—fundamentally altering life or creating new life forms—offers
"mind-boggling" possible benefi ts, from production of new pharmaceuticals
to cleaning up oil spills. But, he added, the benefi ts must be weighed
against bioterrorism and other hard-to-define risks.

"If I didn’t think the potential benefits . . . were massive, there would be
no point in having this conversation," said Murray, president and chief
executive officer of the Hastings Center, in the annual AAAS-Hitachi Lecture
on Science & Society on 28 October.

Finding the best balance of benefits and risks is the rationale for the
collaboration between the FBI and AAAS, said AAAS biosecurity expert Kavita
Berger, an associate program director in the Center for Science, Technology
and Security Policy.

Just a few years ago, Berger contributed to a survey of researchers that
found only a third were comfortable sharing their research with agents, and
a mere 14% felt comfortable with the FBI having a role in monitoring

But if science and security couldn’t build a working relationship, she
thought, then policy-makers, acting out of mistrust or fear, might impose
rules that impede research without affecting real security concerns.

Collaboration, she said, is "ultimately going to be a lot more productive
and a lot more useful in reaching the end goals of security and science."

In professional conferences organized by the FBI and AAAS, You and Berger
have had agents and researchers work through simulated problems related to
biotech and biosecurity. In the process, they learned about each other’s
values, perspectives, and practices.

Now the uneasiness is giving way to closer interaction between researchers
and law enforcement, with major universities offering to host the
conferences. "We’re seeing a paradigm shift," said You, who had worked in
gene therapy and cancer research before joining the FBI.

AAAS is helping forge a similar relationship with amateur biologists, who
number an estimated 4000 or more nationwide. An informal meeting this fall
brought three of them together with You and others from the FBI, along with
government and AAAS officials. The DIY speakers described how a love of
science and commitment to public engagement has led them to hold exhibits at
street fairs and form community labs.

Ellen Jorgensen, an assistant professor in pathology at New York Medical
College and president of the Genspace community lab in New York City,
acknowledged that cooperation with agents does not come easily for many in
the DIY movement.

But, she said, "I think that the meetings we have had were very useful in
terms of fostering some trust between the FBI and the DIY biocommunity . . .
To kill a movement that embodies a reawakened public enthusiasm about
science due to concerns about biosecurity would be a terrible shame."

*—Brian Vastag contributed to this report.*


- Bryan
1 512 203 0507
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