On Thursday, NIH held its second stakeholder engagement meeting on components of the U.S. government biosecurity oversight framework. As I prepared for this meeting and collected my thoughts around the meetings that ultimately shaped the current USG DURC policies, it struck me that it has been almost 17 years to the day since the inaugural (June 30, 2005) meeting of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB). I couldn’t help but start to think about the technological differences between now and 2005. For example, on the day of that first NSABB meeting, the list of things that did not exist include: smartphones, free Wi-Fi, widespread use of electronic health records, and, of course, ubiquitous use of social media.
The remarkable pace of technological development, when applied to biomedical research, is equally, if not more, staggering. As a scientist, I’ll admit I’m thrilled to see how science is being used to make our lives better. However, as a policymaker, I’m extremely cognizant of the importance of ensuring the science we support maximizes the benefits while minimizing risks. After a decade since the NSABB helped shape the first USG DURC policy, we thought it imperative to take a fresh look at our DURC policies to ensure they’ve kept pace.
As part of its series of public sessions related to biosecurity, this week NIH heard from a variety of stakeholders including institutional officials, researchers, policy experts, and other members of the public on the USG’s DURC oversight framework. The meeting featured three sessions focused on the DURC policy scope and definition, policy implementation and effects, and potential future considerations for oversight.
For those of you who were unable to attend (and even those who were), I wanted to share a few of the major highlights of the meeting.
- Multiple speakers emphasized that the DURC policies provide a good overarching framework in which the degree of oversight is justifiable. There was good discussion on whether the classification of agents and experimental types was the most effective strategy moving forward.
- Some speakers thought that the scope should be expanded to encompass non-federally funded research, and there was much discussion of how the democratization of biology necessitates consideration of bottom-up approaches to risk mitigation.
- Communication. Communication. Communication. It was very clear from the discussions and public comment portion that effective communication is critical to ensuring robust oversight of DURC and the success of these policies. Just a few ideas included sharing best practices beyond the academic institution and dedicated efforts to promote understanding and transparency in policy development.
These are just a few of the key takeaways I heard from the meeting. Importantly, this meeting is only one step in the NIH approach to engaging the stakeholder community on this issue. There will be another stakeholder engagement meeting later in 2022. All of the information we are collecting will also help inform the deliberations of the NSABB as they work on their current charge.
In case you were unable to join us earlier this week, I hope you have found this recap helpful. If you were in attendance, please let me know if I left anything out! Finally, a recording of the full meeting will soon be available on the NIH Videocast if you are interested in seeing the action for yourself.