On Thursday, March 17, 2005 the Scientist Working Group had two letters published in the Washington Post in response to an earlier editorial titled, “An Acidic Message.”
Both letters are reproduced here. See the Washington Post for the
The March 10 editorial “An Acidic Message” criticized the microbiologists protesting the National Institutes of Health’s biodefense spending practices for failing to understand the implications of statements by security officials who believe that “al Qaeda and others continue to search for more lethal bioweapons.”
But in congressional testimony on Feb. 16, U.S. intelligence officials appeared to step back from earlier official assessments of terrorists’ bioweapons activities and capabilities. Where bioterrorist attacks once seemed imminent, national security experts now speak of an unquantifiable but “thin line of ignorance” separating terrorists from bioweapons that will “inevitably” be crossed “over time.”
The problem behind the microbiologists’ letter isn’t that they don’t understand the threat because of “too little contact between the scientific community and national security and intelligence agencies,” as The Post said. The problem is that vital national security and health decisions are being made with little serious national discussion about the nature of the threat and how to best respond.
Scientific skepticism is a necessary part of that discussion. The microbiologists’ contention that the time-tested process for generating critical biomedical advances is being threatened would, if true, have serious implications for the health and security of our nation. It deserves our attention.
So too does the concern that we aren’t doing nearly enough to prevent the “thin line of ignorance” from being crossed any time soon.
Director, Biological and Chemical
Weapons Control Program
Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation
The editorial “An Acidic Message” attacked microbiologists who have criticized the federal government for diverting research funding from projects of high public health but low biodefense importance to those of high biodefense but low public health importance.
Obviously, the synergy between public health and national security promised by policymakers is not emerging. The Post is right that bioterrorism is a security threat this country must address. The microbiologists also are correct to warn that billions poured into anthrax and tularemia research won’t help if avian influenza becomes a pandemic, as some public health experts predict.
We risk creating a biosecurity industry that must keep perceptions of the bioterrorist threat high so that money for more biodefense projects, perhaps with little or no public health value, continues to flow. If we reach this point, we will have improved neither national security nor public health.
DAVID P. FIDLER