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Why Do Pathogen Researchers Face Less Scrutiny Than Nuclear Scientists? 227

Posted by timothy
from the time-travelers-totally-get-off-easy-too dept.
Lasrick writes "Derrin Culp of the National Center for Disease Preparedness explores the different levels of scrutiny that scientists in microbiology undergo, when compared to those who work in the nuclear weapons field. His complaint is that, even though America's most notorious biosecurity breach — the 2001 anthrax mailings — was the work of an insider, expert panels have concluded that there is no need for intrusive monitoring of microbiologists engaged in unclassified research."
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Why Do Pathogen Researchers Face Less Scrutiny Than Nuclear Scientists?

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  • http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/02/washington/02anthrax.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 [nytimes.com]

    Seems like biowarfare researchers make just as solid scapegoats as crazy nuclear physicists and MIT computer nerds.

    • The Wired Article : Anthrax Redux: Did the Feds Nab the Wrong Guy? [wired.com] makes me wonder if the anthrax mailer got away with it. Also the Wiki article [wikipedia.org] says one of the 19 involved in 9/11 may have had anthrax based on a doctor which I had never heard before.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 06, 2013 @08:35PM (#43381685)

    Remember 9/11 folks. That happened because the government didn't have the proper tools to monitor the terrorists before the act occurred mainly due to the idiotic beliefs in an outdated and itself a terroristic document, the constitution. Now that we are moving away from the constitution, which was a piece of crap anyways, the country can be made secure. We now have a solid globalist President that is on board with the abolition of the constitution, especially the second amendment, which will lead us to a socialist global society. It's time to give up your so called 'rights' and get with the program. FORWARD!

    • by skine (1524819)

      I would like you to back up the statements that Obama is on board with 1) "abolishing the constitution, especially the 2nd amendment," and 2) "which will lead us to a socialist global society."

      1) Placing limits on the 2nd amendment isn't abolishing it. Every other amendment from the Bill of Rights has limits that have progressively become more well defined over the last 220 years. The 1st amendment guarantees freedom of speech, yet defamation is illegal. Obama isn't taking your guns. He's saying that we sho

      • He's saying that we should run background checks on gun purchasers and limit the number of bullets that can be fired without reloading to a number higher than THE standard service rifle during WWII.

        Did you know that there were standard issue WW2 individual weapons that used 15 round magazines? And 30 round magazines? And 50 round magazines?

        Didn't think so.

        Placing limits on the 2nd amendment isn't abolishing it.

        Which parts of "shall not be infringed" do you have a hard time with?

        Note that the First

  • by Stonefish (210962) on Saturday April 06, 2013 @08:40PM (#43381707)

    1. Biological agents are readily available.
    2. Biological agents are naturally dangerous ie H5N1 is killing people.
    3. Reseach into these agents will provide positive outcomes. ie vaccines
    4. Stupid measures such as profiles fail the best researchers, eg NSA fails more than 50% of maths researchers. Those creative left handed types are dangerous. It's actually true that NSA employs fewer left handed people than the research community at large and is an acknowledged problem. ;-)
    5. Research doesn't have many resources, wasting them upon dumb controls means much less reseach.
    6 The military has oodles of cash (read wasteful) however they're not allowed to play with biological weapons so biology doesn't get much of this cash. (unlike nukes)

  • In the past seventy odd years or so, how many nuclear scientists / chemists / biologists / etc. have gone awol?

    There's your answer.

    • And there's a very good reason for that! A nuclear scientist who defects may justify his or her actions as giving a small country leverage against a bigger one's economic clout. No nukes need to be fired; it's just that (for example) India can't threaten Pakistan with nukes. It's a completely peaceful transfer of power, making it a guilt-free action on the part of the defector.

      With biological weapons, the most dangerous ones are already out there—Malaria, Ebola, et cetera. These are already found in t

  • Of course, there are plenty of dangerous pathogens that are researched actively in the US and other countries. However, Anthrax for the most part is not one of them. As my undergrad microbiology professor said, Anthrax is a "weapon of mass distraction", as it is of little value in terms of actually causing fatalities. It is incredibly difficult for someone who has caught Anthrax to actually transmit it to another individual. Even when you have spores (such as those that were mailed) it is not easy to ac
    • by Lehk228 (705449)
      anthrax is a biological weapon in that it is a weapon of biological origin, however it's behavior and characteristics are much more similar to a chemical weapon.
    • by sgt scrub (869860)

      I guess terrorist will have to get cocaine popular before using it. Kinda defeats the whole terror thing when people are all happy and stuff though.

  • (1) People have an irrational fear of radiation and anything "nuclear".

    (2) It's damned hard to create a deadly pathogen that's any worse than what already is out there.

    (3) Radioactivity is trivial to detect, new pathogens are pretty much impossible to detect, so it's hard to "scrutinize" the work.

  • by Hartree (191324) on Saturday April 06, 2013 @10:55PM (#43382251)

    "expert panels have concluded that there is no need for intrusive monitoring of microbiologists engaged in unclassified research."

    For good reason.

    First, the knowledge is more widespread.

    We have large numbers of researchers/lab workers/hospital lab techs that could do the neccesary techniques for much of biological work.

    We have to have them in large numbers to keep us safer from the NATURAL bioweapons we face every day.

    Such well known killers as malaria, bacterial pneumonia, a whole range of virii, the various strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria we keep a running treadmill race going with, etc, etc.

    Putting all of these lab/hospital workers (Yes, they are working with pathogens. Why else do you think they're doing culturing of that throat swab your doctor took?) under a magnifying glass is needless, discouraging to those who might enter the field, and actively disruptive to trying to fight disease.

    Second, nature completely outclasses us.

    Someone in a lab can do one experiment every few days/weeks, maybe. Mother nature can and does do billions to trillions of experiments all in parallel.

    The bioweapon arms race has been going on in nature for billions of years (yes, billions. Single cell life has been around that long and competing. Multicelled life and armor/teeth is a latecomer at 600 million or so). Every nasty trick you're likely to think of to put into your superbug has been tried multiple times naturally.

    The metallo-beta-lactamases that are the hot new nasty in antibiotic resistance? They aren't new. They were old genetic material that were present in a minority of bacteria, and then spread due to it being an advantage for some bacteria in some cases. None of the antibiotic resistance we see is "new". It's all relics in the bacterial genomes that have become useful again. Why? Because Mom Nature already tried those tricks.

    And,it's the same for virii or any other one you can think of.

  • by girlinatrainingbra (2738457) on Saturday April 06, 2013 @10:55PM (#43382253)
    It seems like it's mostly because of bad PR for the word "nuclear". The sciency types here on /. know that nuclear power plants are not as dangerous as other types of power plants, yet the majority of the public is against nuclear power systems. The PR for "nuke" is so bad that it even caused medical types to change the name of one of their diagnostic devices:
    .
    MRI machines (magnetic resonance imaging) are called that because when they called them NMR machines originally, people were afraid of the word "nuclear" in Nuclear Magnetic Resonance. Even though MRI machines are still exactly the same thing and still measure nuclear magnetic resonance, they no longer use the word "nuclear", because no one wanted to be stuffed in a tube of a machine that had "nuclear" in its name!! People confused it with nuclear imaging [wikipedia.org] in which radioactive isotopes really are injected into the human body and then imaging is performed to see how the isotope is distributed and if it clusters in certain parts of the body.
    .
    People are scared of "nukes", and not-so-much of teeny little microbes, though look at all of the wacky episodes of ReGenesis [wikipedia.org], a canadian show about the canadian equivalent of the CDC and a genomics lab, to see the crazy plotlines of what could go wrong with bio-organisms. Psych also did an episode, "Death is in the Air", Season 4, Episode 13, that used "Bob" from Regenesis as the same sort of scientist. See my other post here [slashdot.org] for links to those episodes.
  • Intrusive regulation "may" discourage infectious disease research? Of course it would. It has done just that for (non-medical) nuclear research.

    We sent a UCLA professor to jail when a student in his lab died in an accident related to poor training. Maybe that's the right idea.

    If a deadly accident or malicious release occurs from your lab, you go to jail. Just reiterate that to everyone: you're ultimately responsible for what comes out of your lab. It's a lot less harsh than the permanent label you earn

  • I hear everyone arguing about what a scientist could produce, and how, and how bad it could/would be...but that isn't the issue at all here. If you're going to talk about nuclear technology vs. pathogen technology, then you need to talk about proliferation. The treaties at stake, the classification of information, export controls...none of these are about *doing* research, they're about the control of knowledge needed to do research. The controls on nuclear research and engineering are about proliferation

  • The second paragraph of the linked article makes this bogus assertion:

    Since 2008, when investigators led by the FBI's Washington Field Office identified Bruce E. Ivins, an Army civilian research scientist, as the sole perpetrator, the collective response has been to minimize discussion of the problem, indulge in wishful thinking, and enact cosmetic changes.

    Here is a Wednesday, Feb 16, 2011 article by Salon's Glenn Greenwald, titled "Serious doubt cast on FBI’s anthrax case against Bruce Ivins - A scientific panel concludes the Government overstated its genetic evidence against Bruce Ivins": http://www.salon.com/2011/02/16/ivans/ [salon.com]

  • We have no ability at all to predict whether a person will strike out or not. The notion that we can watch, predict, or stop bad actors is a fantasy.
    First we have no way to determine if an individual is acting on his own impulses or is being coerced. A family member could be held by terrorists for example. We also have big problems spotting people with abnormal levels of greed who might be bribed. Follow that up

To err is human -- to blame it on a computer is even more so.

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