Risk Communication and the Public Debate on Biocontainment Facilities

Tuesday, October 31, 2006
12:00 AM - 12:00 PM
Reuben W. Hills Conference Room
  • Margaret Race

The siting and construction of high-level biocontainment facilities involves a complex review process with environmental impact documents, legally mandated reviews, and public involvement in decision making about associated risks. In some cases, serious public opposition and legal challenges may arise during the review and approval stages of a project. The recent proposed construction of NIH-NIAID regional and national biocontainment labs provided an opportunity for a real-time study of the review and approval processes associated with labs in many different locations. By analyzing environmental impact documents, mass media coverage, internet communications, and detailed timelines at the various labs, it was possible to identify common issues and features associated with labs in general, as well as specific concerns associated with those where public controversies and opposition arose. The study focused on both good and bad experiences at various recently proposed lab sites and compared them with other past case examples to identify 'lessons learned' that are relevant to both current and future biocontainment projects. Overall, the study documented the continuing importance of trust, transparency, and due process in public decision making and highlighted the importance of developing and implementing a comprehensive pro-active risk communication strategy at the earliest stages of project planning. The study also documented indications of public insecurity associated with biodefense research, which may translate into future problems for public health researchers.

Margaret Race is an ecologist working with NASA through the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. 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 a 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 locaitons. 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 Ph.D. 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.