White House set to expand oversight of potentially dangerous scientific research

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The White House has proposed new oversight of research institutions that work with agents and toxins that can pose major security threats, known as dual-use research of concern.

Institutions that accept federal funding for that type of research would be subject to the policy (.pdf), released Feb. 21 by the Office of Science and Technology Policy. They'd have to implement internal oversight procedures, develop risk mitigation plans, establish review committees, educate and train researchers on threats, and report noncompliance.

The OSTP, in a request for comment posted in the Federal Register, said it's limiting the policy to 15 agents and toxins along with seven categories of experiments for the time being, because the oversight will be a new endeavor for many research institutions.

The agents and toxins include the bird flu virus, the Ebola virus, the bacterium that causes anthrax, and the foot-and-mouth disease virus. The types of experiments include those that enhance the harmful effects of the agent or toxin and those that make a host population more susceptible to an agent or toxin.

As it receives feedback from participating institutions, the OSTP said it will consider expanding the scope of the policy to more agents, toxins and types of experiments.

It also noted that dual-use research of concern "should not be seen as a negative categorization, but simply an indication that the research may warrant additional oversight." Designation in that category "does not mean that the research should not be conducted or communicated," it adds.

The request for comment specifically asked institutions to describe their anticipated burden from the policy, ideas for alternatives, and how to integrate the oversight with other review processes. It also requested comments on additional agents, toxins and types of experiments that may deserve oversight as well as whether it's feasible to have a single point of contact within an institution to communicate with its federal funding agency.

The public has until April 23 to respond.

For more:
- read the request for comment in the Federal Register
- download "United States Government Policy for Institutional Oversight of Life Sciences Dual Use Research of Concern" (.pdf)
- go to a White House OSTP blog post about the policy

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