"......... Lyme disease was racing through the Northeast......"
From Washington Dispatch.com
Commentary by Edward McSweegan
August 17, 2004
As a graduate student twenty years ago, I had a departmental recruiting
tacked up on the wall next to my desk. It read, in part, "If you are curious,
patient, and awfully damned intelligent, consider a Ph.D. in microbiology."
1984 a degree in microbiology seemed like a good idea.
AIDS was just exploding on the scene. Lyme disease was racing through the
Northeast. Evidence was emerging that a bizarre neurologic disease might be
caused by an equally bizarre infectious agent called a prion. And recombinant
DNA techniques, discovered a decade earlier, were rapidly helping to create a
multi-billion dollar industry in the U.S.
But now in 2004, a degree in microbiology, or even a vague interest in
infectious diseases, might not be such a good idea. In fact, it might get you
arrested by the FBI.
After 9/11 and the October anthrax mailings, a series of laws and
were hastily enacted to discourage future acts of bioterrorism and misguided
hoaxes. The anthrax mailer has not been caught and no other bioterrorists
appear to be lurking on the horizon.
Deprived of new suspects, terrorists, plagues or other insidious acts of
microbiology, the FBI has turned its attention to softer targets.
In the last two years they have used provisions of the 2001 Patriot Act and
2002 Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act to
arrest and prosecute university professors, graduate students, and at least
New York artist. None of these U.S. citizens are terrorists, but they have
been run to ground by the FBI's need to be seen doing something...even if it's
the wrong thing.
Two years ago, a University of Connecticut graduate student (Tomas Foral)
became the first person to be arrested under the Patriot Act. His crime:
moving a 35-year-old sample collected from an anthrax-infected cow from one
freezer to another freezer. This spring, world-renowned plague expert and
physician Thomas Butler was sentenced to two years in prison. His crime:
mislabeling a FedEx package containing plague samples, and getting into
disputes with Texas Tech University accountants over his research funds.
In July, a federal grand jury indicted a University of Pittsburgh genetics
professor, and an artist at the State University of New York at Buffalo. As
with Butler and Foral before them, neither man is charged with any actual acts
of bioterrorism. Rather they are charged with mail and wire fraud. The
artist, Steve Kurtz, got two samples of harmless bacteria from Pittsburg
Professor Robert Ferrell who apparently failed to fill out the appropriate
paperwork. Both men are facing the possibility of 20 years in prison.
The Patriot Act prohibits the possession of "any biological agent, toxin,
delivery system of a type or in a quantity that, under the circumstances, is
not reasonably justified by a prophylactic, protective, bona fide research, or
other peaceful purpose."
Phrase such as "biological agent," "reasonably justified," and "peaceful
purposes" are open to interpretation; if one is inclined to be reasonable,
especially about criminal intent. Unfortunately, the FBI and the Justice
Department have shown no interest in being reasonable or responsible defenders
of the public's safety.
Last fall, D.A. Henderson, the Johns Hopkins University professor who
eradicated smallpox in the 1970’s and advises the federal government on
bioterrorism, declared the FBI has "lost all perspective" and "is out of
control." In June, Dr. Barbara Rosenberg, Chair of the Arms Control Center's
Scientists Working Group on Biological and Chemical Weapons, said, "Clearly
Justice Department hasn't the foggiest idea of what is significant."
Instead of focusing on real terrorists and lone lunatics, they are using
Patriot Act as a crowbar to pry open the innocuous trivia of ordinary people's
lives, and leveraging Mickey Mouse complaints, sloppy paperwork and
professional disputes to the status of federal crimes worthy of indictment,
prosecution and imprisonment.
The result is widespread fear among scientists. Some researchers have
working on certain dangerous pathogens and some universities have destroyed
valuable collections rather than risk a paperwork mishap that might attract
FBI. Cornell professor and Nobel Laureate Robert Richardson noted that before
the Patriot Act thirty-eight of his colleagues were working on “select
agents.” Now there are two. Anthrax expert Paul Keim told the Los Angeles
Times last October, "All of us are worried we are going to fall into some trap
that we don't know about."
One of the biggest traps may be the new Material Transfer Agreement (MTA)
people now must sign in order to get specimens from the American Type Culture
Collection (ATCC), a national archive of biological materials. The Agreement
states, “The Purchaser shall not distribute, sell, lend or otherwise transfer
the Material…for any reason.”
That may sound reasonable, but how do teachers and professors hand out
classroom samples and do student experiments without violating the ATCC decree
not to distribute, lend or otherwise transfer? To follow the letter of the
law, every Biology 101 class could generate hundreds of MTAs. How do
researchers and graduate students collaborate if every test tube and Petri
must generate a paper trail from person to person, sample to sample, and
experiment to experiment? As University of California at San Diego Professor
Natalie Jeremijenko observed, “They’re going to have to indict the entire
scientific community.” Medical research and science education are becoming
the new causalities in the war on terror.
As the arrest of Steve Kurtz suggests, the greatest threat may be to
scientists. The Society for Amateur Scientists (SAS) defines an amateur as
"anyone who wants to do science simply for the pleasure of finding things
Unfortunately, that also may be the FBI's definition of a terrorist.
Shawn Carlson, Executive Director of the SAS and a regular contributor to
Scientific American's monthly amateur scientist column, denounced the
"demonization of citizen scientists" in a 2002 press release. He noted, “My
fellow citizen scientists are very worried right now.”
The federal assault on science and scientists is an important issue that
not been well covered outside professional journals and science magazines.
should be. When federal agents, backed by federal laws, come to view
classrooms as terrorist training camps, backyard hobbyists as dangerous
lunatics, and professors as domestic terrorists, then we are all in danger.
Professional and amateur scientists, and the science teachers who first
inspired them, share a common threat and should form a common front against
indiscriminate use of laws meant to protect us from foreign terrors. Benjamin
Franklin—patriot, rebel and amateur scientist—once noted, “We must all
hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” So far, the FBI
has been hanging us separately.
Edward McSweegan is a working microbiologist and writes the "Pathogens &
People" column for The Capital newspaper in Maryland.
© Copyright 2004 The Washington Dispatch