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Collaborating on biotech policy

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Close of a human hand working on a DNA molecule. CISAC's Megan Palmer explains in a new article how the FBI is collaborating with the biotech community in order to be prepared to respond to an emerging biological threat.
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SergeyNivens/Getty Images

In this new articleMegan Palmer, a senior research scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, talks about the different ways that the FBI is collaborating with the biotech community in order to be prepared to respond to an emerging biological threat. One of them is by reaching out to student bioengineers at programs like the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition. The purpose of that event is to demonstrate how synthetic biology can be used to address pressing global issues.

As the article states, whether it’s an accidental outbreak or a biological attack, the FBI seeks to create a culture of trust and transparency with the biotech community. Palmer discussed this topic recently at the Biofabricate conference for synthetic biology and design in New York City.

As Palmer noted, biological attacks are a historical reality. In 1984, cult members poisoned patrons of 10 salad bars in Oregon with salmonella, sickening more than 750 people. And in 2001 shortly after the 9/11 attacks, anthrax spores that were mailed to newsrooms and government offices killed five people. While other incidents may have simply failed, it seems prudent to prepare for future attacks that could be even more deadlier.

Enter the FBI's foreay into the biotech community. Collaboartion between the public and private sectors is increasing in this area. As Palmer said, examples exist of iGEM students acting as "white hat biohackers" to help biotech companies detect weaknesses in their systems that  all in collaboration with the FBI, Palmer says. 

“There’s the overall sense that the government has acknowledged that it is not necessarily the center of influence in technological development,” Palmer told the publication. “We’re going to start seeing many more examples of partnerships between the government and the private sector where you wouldn't have necessarily expected them before. People should be willing to give them a chance.” 

To Palmer, the key to the collaboration is open communication. She reports progress with the FBI and biotech community on this front. Palmer herself asks the FBI questions about its involvement and interest in biotech dangers. So far, they have “been willing to have more of those conversations,” she said. The true test will come when the relationship is finally tested by what Palmer describes as a “triggering event,” either a situation where there is reason to believe a biotech has occurred or one in which the FBI is prying a bit too much into the lives of biologists. Palmer said that if the relationship doesn’t withstand this type of challenge, the trust between the FBI and the community would weaken, and communication would break down.

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