Most scientific research goes on largely unnoticed by the general public and in many cases they only learn about facilities and the details of experiments through highly publicized media reports. Reports relating to biosecurity issues often reveal biosafety breaches or accidents as in the Boston University case, or major scientific breakthroughs - many of which have dual use potential - as in the recreation of 1918 influenza virus. In both cases, the news is alarming to members of the public.
Citizens are surprised to learn that high containment facilities are operating or being built in their neighborhoods and often misunderstand the implications, by thinking that the research poses a threat to their family’s wellbeing. There is substantial concern over the safety and security of these facilities especially those that are located in densely populated areas. Local residents are often concerned about the possibility of the accidental release of agents into their neighborhood, and about the possibility of theft or becoming a target for terrorists.
Members of the general public also express concerns about the apparent lack of transparency and oversight of select agent and biodefense research. In many of the highly publicized cases of biosafety incidents, the universities involved resisted reporting the incident to the NIH and were also not forthcoming with information to the public.
Reinforcing the view that there is not sufficient oversight in science, the Sunshine Project did two surveys of the Institutional Biosafety Committees (IBCs), whose main function is to review research projects and provide biosafety oversight to each institution. The surveys, conducted in 2004 and 2006, found that many institutions did not have IBC’s, and in many of the ones that did, their IBC’s did not meet regularly or did not keep detailed minutes of their meetings. In fact it was only through the Sunshine Project survey that details about the Texas A&M brucella incidents were discovered.