WaPo Story on Gain of Function Research: Lessons the Forest Community Could Teach NIH

One of the shortest efforts I was involved with in my career was to work on “how NEPA applies to R&D conducted by USDA through grants.” In my case, it was genetically engineered organisms and concern about their release into the environment. The answer, I was told, was that they wouldn’t get out, so no problem, no NEPA. But that was decades ago.

I thought the Washington Post has done a good job of reporting here on the details of how gain of function experiments and other potentially dangerous experiments have been approved.   Hopefully there is no firewall.  What does this have to do with the federal lands/forest biz, might you say?  It just seems to me if you need public involvement and environmental analysis for a 300 acre fuel reduction project, maybe you need the same kind or more for projects involving biosafety concerns?

If you need third party independent certification to make sure your wood has been sustainably produced.. maybe you should have the same (independent certification) procedures for labs, perhaps international like PEFC or FSC?  And if your argument why not is that it could be dangerous if you made the information public, maybe that’s a scientific/public policy situation that shouts “watch out.” And needs greater attention and scrutiny. hat’s conceptually, and then there’s the legal question of how or if NEPA applies.

I hope you can read the whole WaPo story, as it gives a history of how gain of function research has been managed.

Lisa Monaco, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, and John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, urged all federal and nonfederal labs on Aug. 28, 2014, to conduct a “Safety Stand-Down” to “review laboratory biosafety and biosecurity best practices and protocols.”

In mid-October — citing the “recent biosafety incidents at Federal research facilities” — the Office of Science and Technology Policy and HHS jointly announced a “pause” in funding for any newly proposed gain-of-function experiments with influenza and the feared coronavirus strains MERS and SARS.

The announcement also encouraged “those currently conducting this type of work, whether federally funded or not, to voluntarily pause their research while risks and benefits are being reassessed.”

The increased federal scrutiny triggered pushback from some virologists, including coronavirus researchers Ralph S. Baric of the University of North Carolina and Mark R. Denison of Vanderbilt University.

“We argue that it is premature to include the emerging coronaviruses under these restrictions, as scientific dialogue that seriously argues the biology, pros, cons, likely risks to the public, and ethics of [gain-of-function research] have not been discussed in a serious forum,” Baric and Denison wrote to the biosecurity board on Nov. 12, 2014.

Referring more broadly to highly pathogenic flu and coronavirus strains, their letter added: “The pandemic potential of these viruses is clear, but they also are vulnerable in the early stages of an outbreak to public health intervention methods. . . . GOF [gain of function] experiments are a documented, powerful tool.”

Within weeks, NIH officials informed Baric and an undetermined number of other researchers that their work had been exempted from the pause.

I’d argue that it shouldn’t be only “scientific” dialogue; but perhaps experienced Ag and Interior people could help HHS design a “serious” public/scientific forum.  We’ve had a variety of political and media exhortations to “follow the science” which sometimes can spread into giving the mantle of authority to (some, usually at the expense of others) scientists and  into placing undue confidence in scientists acting selflessly in the public interest.  But hey, we’re just people, no better or worse.  Who don’t always behave well without oversight. I think that’s what President Eisenhower had in mind  when he said:

“Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields… ,” Eisenhower warned. “Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.”

While continuing to respect discovery and scientific research, he said, “We must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”

Dan Sarewitz, an STS researcher, adds:

Eisenhower was concerned about a dilemma scientific and technological advances present modern society, Sarewitz said. The influence of these advances forces democratic societies to increasingly depend on a rarified elite to understand and manage the very complexity that they help to create and accelerate, he said. This is not only a problem of managing modern warfare, he said, but applies to other key technology-driven systems such as energy, agriculture and food, transportation, and communications.

And the interface between democracy and scientific expertise is the place that at least federal lands/forest people have long inhabited. In my own experience, not so much Big Science and the Science Establishment (like research on synthetic organisms.. what could go wrong?). I tried to find NEPA for NIH and HHS online but it seemed to relate to construction. Maybe there is a “when NEPA applies” paper like the FS has, for those organizations somewhere?

Here’s an interesting paper on synthetic biology and research needs for assessing environmental impacts. Perhaps we are several recursive steps (research to do research to do research) from doing the kind of environmental analysis that is needed for much of this kind of research.

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