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'Experiments of concern' to be vetted online

Expert panel to offer advice on science with bioterror applications.

What do you do if you have a great idea for an experiment, but are worried that the results could enable a potential biological weapon?

Soon you will be able to ask a panel of experts for advice through a website being developed at the University of California, Berkeley.

Spearheaded by Stephen Maurer of the Goldman School of Public Policy and the Boalt Law School, the website is part of a suite of measures he has developed with scientists and public-policy experts to minimize the risks of biology research being misused.

Stephen Maurer: giving advice on tap. Credit: K. ANDERSON

The website, expected to begin operating by the end of March, will provide biologists with advice about 'dual-use research' or 'experiments of concern' — research with innocent goals that could inadvertently arm terrorists.

Scientists will be able to enter information about proposed experiments, each of which will be reviewed by a different panel of three experts. The panels will include at least one security expert and one biologist. They will deliver a verdict on whether the work raises any security concerns, and if so, how those concerns might be addressed. The entire process should take about two weeks, says Maurer.

Maurer has lined up experiments to beta-test the site and, if those go well, the site could open for business as early as April. The portal is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a philanthropic funding body.

Experiments of concern have long troubled scientists and policy-makers, not least because most security reviews of such experiments occur at a very late stage — when the work is already finished and ready to publish.

For example, when scientists reconstructed the genome of the 1918 influenza virus and submitted their paper to Science in 2005, US government officials and the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) were consulted about the work. At the behest of the NSABB, Science ran an editorial explaining why it had published the work — even though the paper was in press by the time the advisory board made its request (see _Nature_ 437, 794; 2005). The new portal is designed to provide feedback before work begins, so such problems don't arise.

"It will be a place where people can ask questions, and other people can learn from those questions, so they don't have to ask them," says Michael Imperiale, a virologist and immunologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who is a member of the NSABB.

Some information about the submitted experiments will be displayed on the website, although Maurer says reasonable confidentiality measures will be undertaken, such as holding back proprietary information until the work is published.

Maurer admits that the portal's success will depend on how many scientists use it. But he is optimistic because the idea came from the community that will use it, and many scientists have already agreed to serve as expert reviewers.

"There is an instinct in the community that if you think you're talking about an experiment of concern, you should ask someone — but biosecurity people are scarce on the average campus," he says. The portal is designed to be a help, rather than a burden, in these situations. "People have enough layers of paperwork in their lives," says Maurer. "The idea is to make this as painless as possible."

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Click here for experiments of concern portal.

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Related links in Nature Research

Editorial: Risks and benefits of dual-use research

Editorial: Statement on the consideration of biodefence and biosecurity

Related external links

National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity

National Academies Report: Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism

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Hayden, E. 'Experiments of concern' to be vetted online. Nature 457, 643 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/457643a

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