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Funders Should Follow Lead Of U.S. In Creating Policies For Scientific Research Oversight

“[T]he controversy over the research into the genetic modification of the H5N1 flu virus, finally approved for publication, should offer a reminder of the importance of debate” over dual-use technology, a Nature editorial states. “[D]ual-use basic research is a special case because its implications, for good and bad, are often viewed with the greatest clarity by only a small minority of people,” and often only “[t]he scientists involved (and they are increasingly specialists in very small fields) … can fully understand the risks posed by a line of research,” according to the editorial. “There are disadvantages to leaving it up to outsiders to initiate debate about risks, benefits and ethics,” the editorials states, noting three disadvantages, including the risk of misconceptions and a lack of knowledge about how to handle some research.

While “[t]he U.S. government has responded to the H5N1 debate by asking its funding agencies to increase their vigilance when assessing research proposals for the potential for harm, … [s]uch problems can also be tackled through greater open discussion of research” by scientists themselves, the editorial states. “[R]esearchers should publicly ask whether the work being done by their colleagues poses any threat — and, if it does, how that weighs against the benefits. Then they should be prepared to discuss potential problems collectively to reach a decision on to how to proceed,” Nature writes, concluding, “More funders should copy the United States and look at introducing early oversight of research. The public must be well forewarned of problems that it might care about, and scientists can make sure that discussions of risk and hazard remain grounded in reality” (4/25).