Monday, the National Research Council released a report that finds “several major shortcomings” in a U.S. Department of Homeland Security assessment of risks associated with operating the proposed National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) in Manhattan, Kan. The National Research Council review of the DHS risk assessment finds that there is nearly a 70 percent chance over the 50-year lifetime of the facility that a release of Foot and Mouth Disease could result in an infection outside the laboratory, impacting the economy by estimates of $9 billion to $50 billion.
The planned National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility will be a state-of-the-art containment facility that will support programs that the nation and others will turn to as a global reference, training and research laboratory for foreign animal diseases. As a biosafety level 4 pathogen facility, the NBAF will be a high-containment laboratory with the ability to carry out critical research on agents that pose serious threats to U.S. animal and human heath by using large animals, such as cattle and swine.
Biosafety level assignments were created by the Centers for Disease Control to classify the relative danger to the surrounding environment. Biosafety level designations increase as the potential consequences of exposure to research materials become more hazardous. A Level 4 biosafety facility works with dangerous and exotic agents that pose a high individual risk of aerosol-transmitted laboratory infections, agents for which vaccines or other treatments are not available.
Recent publications of the National Research Council discuss aspects of research with select agents, including lab safety and security. This year the NRC has published reports to evaluate several high containment facilities, including the proposed Kansas site. These studies and other related titles can inform and guide discussion about research priorities, safety concerns, and dual-use issues.
As you may have heard, former NAS President Bruce Alberts, former NIH Director and IOM member Elias Zerhouni, and Nobel prize-winning chemist and NAS member Ahmed Zewail have been appointed by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to serve as science envoys to Muslim majority countries.
According to the State Department press release, the envoys will engage with international partners on topics ranging from scientific and health issues, to climate change, environmental issues, and cooperation on satellites and global positioning systems. Their aim will be to “promote responsible environmental governance, foster innovation, and increase public engagement on shared environmental and health challenges.” You can view a video of Secretary Clinton’s remarks here.
The National Academies has ample experience working across borders to further scientific causes. In fact, the newly released book, Interacademy Programs Between the United States and Eastern Europe 1967-2009 documents how the Academies has been able to establish and maintain scientific contacts with colleagues in Eastern Europe prior to and after the lifting of the Iron Curtain.
From the book:
Beginning in 1965, several foreign secretaries of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) decided to try to bring the well established but isolated scientific communities of Eastern Europe closer to the mainstream of international science.
A review of the early stages of the program was conducted in 1989 and found several positive outcomes, including a furthering of scientific knowledge and a more in-depth understanding of the complex relationships between politics, scientific priorities, and cultural and social trends.
Following the lifting of the Iron Curtain, the program evolved to a more natural mode of cooperation. In 1993 the NAS began annual and open competitions among American Scientists who wished to work with colleagues from the former Soviet Union. As closed doors in the region were opening during the 1990s, these connections proved invaluable for helping to integrate the region’s scientists into the international science community. As time went on, meetings became more frequent:
At low cost, the NAS could sponsor annual regional scientific meetings in Europe, rotating from capital to capital. Such forums, organized in cooperation with interested academies and co-funded by these academies, could provide opportunities to exchange up-to-date information on scientific advances in selected fields, trends in efforts to promote sustainable knowledge-based economies, and mechanisms to expand scientist-to-scientist cooperation. The scientific and political payoff from such high visibility demonstrations of U.S. interest in the region would be substantial.