Despite these important advances, in contrast with other weapons, the materials and equipment required to create and propagate a biological attack using naturally occurring or genetically manipulated pathogens remain decidedly “low-tech,” inexpensive, and widely available. In the case of the physical sciences and nuclear proliferation, the development of nuclear weapons R&D required equipment that was specialized and expensive. As a result, the ability to engage in research promoting nuclear proliferation was restricted to the global superpowers and other well-funded nonstate entities. In addition, nuclear weapons R&D could be detected by monitoring the acquisitions of the specialized equipment needed for such programs and by other technical means. By contrast, much of the same equipment that can be used to create a dangerous biological agent is also a key part of benign biological research programs. Moreover, in the case of life sciences research, it is not just that much of the same materials and equipment can be used for illegal and benign research, but also that biological research can produce agents and knowledge that in the hands of some would promote human health and welfare, but that in the hands of others would be used for harm. This is the crux of what is called “dual-use research of concern.”
In the late 1970s, scientists conducting research in the emerging field of recombinant DNA developed a model of oversight that involved 1) personal responsibility and accountability of the researcher to conduct his or her research safely; 2) deliberations by a nationally convened advisory group to provide recommendations regarding biosafety with recombinant DNA research; and 3) local oversight by the institution through a committee of peer researchers and biosafety professionals to assure that appropriate facilities, practices, personnel, and training were in place. Although all of these components of self-governance and local assurance were recommended for all U.S. researchers regardless of affiliation, the practical outcome of this system is that only institutions accepting federal funding for recombinant DNA research are obligated to use this model of oversight.
Discussions of oversight for dual-use life sciences research have centered on the same components as those considered 30 years ago for recombinant DNA. In 2003 the National Academies published Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism, also referred to as the “Fink Report,” after the committee chair, Gerald Fink. The Fink Report was