Institutional Biosafety Committees: A System in Need of Overhaul

Wednesday, February 27, 2008
12:00 PM - 1:30 PM
Reuben W. Hills Conference Room
  • Margaret Race
Institutional Biosafety Committees (IBCs) have been charged with the oversight and review of biosafety at thousands of biocontainment labs nationwide, hundreds of which are high level BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs.  In light of the recent rapid proliferation of BSL-3 and BSL-4 facilities and the increases in biodefense, select agent, recombinant DNA, synthetic biology, and dual use research, questions have been raised about whether IBCs are fulfilling their oversight responsibilities.  This presentation will review information on the responsibilities and expectations of IBCs as currently constituted, and provide an analysis of IBC performance from survey data of hundreds of research institutions over the past 4-5 years.  The findings highlight serious ongoing problems with IBCs adhering to the NIH Guidelines. This does little to reassure that the current voluntary governance framework is an effective system to monitor and oversee US research facilities, including high-containment facilities, and their research activities. The findings strongly suggest the need for immediate improvement or replacement of the IBC system.

Margaret Race is an ecologist working with NASA through the SETI Institute in Mountain View CA and a former CISAC Science Fellow. She recently completed a study on public decision making and risk communication associated with the construction of BSL-3 and BSL-4 biocontainment labs nationwide.  The study, which was begun during her fellowship at Stanford University and CISAC, reflects her longstanding interest in risk perceptions, legal and societal issues, public communication and education associated with controversial science and technological proposals.  In her work with NASA, she focuses on planetary protection and the search for extraterrestrial life--which will someday involve construction of a BSL-4 biocontainment lab for handling and testing scientific samples returned from Mars and other solar system locations. During the past decade, she has been a lead member of an international team of researchers that helped NASA develop a protocol for the quarantine, handling, and testing of extraterrestrial samples from Mars. She has served on numerous National Resource Council studies analyzing risk communication and societal issues associated environmental protection on Earth and in space. Dr. Race received her BA degree in Biology and MS degree in Energy Management and Policy from the University of Pennsylvania, and her PhD in Ecology/Zoology from the University of California at Berkeley. Her teaching and research work has included positions at Stanford University (Human Biology Program), UC Berkeley (Assistant Dean, College of Natural Resources), and Office of the President, University of California (Senior Science Policy Analyst and Director of Planning). She was also a Postdoctoral Fellow in Marine Policy and Ocean Management at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.