Expert Report

Challenges and Opportunities for Education About Dual Use Issues in the Life Sciences (2010)

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A workshop at the Polish Academy of Science in November 2009 was the latest in a series of activities organized by national and international scientific organizations to address concerns that continuing advances in the life sciences, while offering great current and potential benefits, could also yield knowledge, tools, and techniques that could be misused for biological weapons or for bioterrorism. The National Research Council, in partnership with several international scientific organizations, convened this workshop in response to a U.S. State Department request for recommendations on the most effective education, internationally, of life scientists on “dual use” issues. The workshop focused on how education about these issues might form part of a much broader response to the potential risks. The workshop sought to identify a baseline about (1) the extent to which dual use issues are currently included in postsecondary education in the life sciences, (2) in what contexts that education is occurring, and (3) what online educational materials addressing research in the life sciences with dual use potential already exist. The workshop identified gaps and needs and this report recommends ways in which those gaps might be filled and the needs met.

Key Messages

  • At present, most of the examples of education about dual use issues occur as part of more general education about responsible conduct of research, in basic life sciences courses, as part of biosafety training, or within bioethics. In the United States, this extends to the specific education on responsible conduct of research (RCR) and research ethics that is mandated by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.
  • Available evidence suggests that, to date, there has been very limited introduction of education about dual use issues, either as stand-alone courses or as parts of other courses.
  • Because a significant amount of information and training about responsible conduct and biosafety is provided informally, either through dedicated modules outside regular coursework or in-laboratory mentoring by senior researchers, current evidence may understate the education on these general issues that is actually available to students.
  • Some evidence shows an increase in the introduction of dual use issues into education in the life sciences. These examples come from all over the world and seem to result primarily from the work of an interested, committed individual or a specific project, often by a nongovernmental organization.