Federation of American Scientists Case Studies in Dual Use Biological Research Module 8.0: Public Reaction Case Study
Topic: Discussion

Scientists need to be aware of the public’s perspective and recognize it as valid. The public is a key stakeholder in the scientific research enterprise and since their support is necessary; their concerns need to be addressed. It is important to communicate clearly the risks associated with research as well as the benefits. Scientists should be upfront about discussing the biosafety and biosecurity measures that will be employed and the reasons for them. The fundamental principles are trust and respect. Scientists need to respect the public’s concerns and trust that if they are well informed they will make sound decisions to support research. At the same time, the public needs to trust scientists not to put them at risk and respect the work that they do as necessary and beneficial. The only way to foster trust and respect between the communities is to have ongoing outreach and dialog. Boston University chose not to engage the public in the early planning phases of their high containment lab planning and as a result spent several years facing law suits and battling community groups opposed to the facility. Early and open communication with the public could have resulted in a very different story.

The public needs to be assured that there is sufficient oversight of facilities, the type of research that goes on in them and who has access. While it is important that information within the institution is freely available, it is also important that information passed outside of the institution and to the public is accurate, consistent and easy to understand.

Public engagement should not be limited to select agent research and biocontainment labs. There are many types of experiments which do not use pathogens or toxins but could have dual use applications. The public can be alarmed by research on antibiotic resistance or DNA synthesis and manipulation as well. It is important for scientists to interact with their communities to keep them informed of the type of work that is being done. A greater understanding of science and scientific research may reduce the level of fear and uncertainty that some members of the public feel.

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