Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Pathology of Government-Funded Research

This article was sent to me today and well worth a read. Mike

The Pathology of Government-Funded Research
U.W.'s Biocontainment Lab: Coming to a Neighborhood Near You!

copyleft April 2005by Zbignew Zingh

The University of Washington, whose main campus lies near the heart of Seattle, wants to accept bushels of federal grant money to construct a large Level 3 biocontainment laboratory near the banks of Portage Bay.

Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the U.W. neglected to tell any of the local people what it planned to build in their backyard, nor did the University bother to tell its own faculty senate what it was planning.

A Level 3 biocontainment laboratory is a euphemism for a bio-terrorism R&D center. The facility - to be built adjacent to the University of Washington Medical Center at a cost of $50 million or more would research the development of immunizations and cures for microorganisms that cause the likes of bird flu, anthrax, tularemia, meliodosis and bubonic plague. Of course, there have been no such known local outbreaks in recent memory, but there could be in the future, argues the University. Lethal as these exotic diseases may be, the University has assured everyone that no Level 4 research would be done on campus on still more noxious pathogens like Ebola or Marburg which can have mortality rates as high as 100%... at least not right now, and certainly not that anyone would ever tell you about it if they did do Level 4 bio-terror research on campus.

It is understandable why the University of Washington wants to build a dedicated, state-of-the-art bio-terrorism laboratory. First, thanks to the national government's regressive tax policies and its reallocation of federal money from the public sector to the Perpetual War on Terrorism and the Force-Feeding of American Style Democracy, all states and local governments everywhere have lost the financial subsidies that allowed them to (at best) marginally fund public education. The U.W., like all state education, has been deliberately starved of resources to the point where it wil l take grant money where it can find it. Second, the medical school wants to maintain its “edge” as an eminent research institution, even if that means crawling into bed with proxies for Homeland Security and the military's weapons developers. Third, the University apparently has an incurable institutional penchant for poking itself in the eye by doing incredibly dumb things (such as ruining its athletic programs), also for the sake of prestige, reputation and money.

Once the laboratory cat was out of the bag, the U.W. finally was forced to meet with the public and explain itself. In the two meetings held so far, its explanations have won very few neighbors over to the University's proposal.

The opposition to the U.W.'s bio-terror project falls into three general categories. One category comprises those who believe that we really do need to protect ourselves from terror-mongering Bad People who will try to infect our sons and daughter s with lethal doses of God Knows What. However, this group prefers that the laboratory be constructed somewhere else other than right next door to where so many people live and work. A second group of opponents believes that the construction of a large and consolidated biocontainment lab is inherently unsafe, that it could accidentally discharge toxic microorganisms into an urban petri dish ideally suited for the propagation of deadly epidemics, and that the biocontainment lab would become a magnet for terrorist attack. The third category of laboratory opponents simply oppose it on principle, and because they consider both the University and its federal benefactors to be dishonest and dissembling about their intentions.

The University, for its part, has explained its support for the proposed project. It contends, in sum, that:
1.The threat of bio-terrorism is real and someone needs to research the counter-terrorism measures;
2.The University needs to conduct bleeding edge research in order to retain cutting edge faculty and a cutting edge reputation;
3.The Level 3 biocontainment laboratory will be as safe and secure as modern technology can make it;
4.Neither the military nor the Department of Homeland security will be funding this project; and
5.There are already many bio-terror labs on campus and in the Northwest, so one more will not hurt anything.

None of these arguments advance the University's case.

The Threat of Bio-terrorism. Maybe it is real and maybe it is not. However, the only known uses of biological warfare throughout history have been state-sponsored. Whether it was the catapulting of plague-infested cadavers into medieval cities under siege, or the 18th Century British distribution of small pox infected blankets to the indigenous tribes of North America, or Japanese human experimentation on Chinese POWS during the Second World War, there has always been a “government” behind the use and research of biological weapons. Too often, even in American medicine's checkered past, it was state-sponsored medical research that sacrificed Black Americans to syphilis, tested bacteria aerosols on the citizens of San Francisco and subjected unwitting soldiers and sailors to nuclear radioactivity testing, all in the name of medical research and science.

Moreover, the anthrax attacks of September 11, 2001 – ah, yes, those still unsolved and rarely mentioned anthrax attacks - that anthrax was an incredibly sophisticated, highly weaponized “Ames” strain of anthrax that most probably was developed in an American Army weapons laboratory. All of which leads one to question who was the terrorist behind the anthrax attacks of 2001 or, at least, to wonder how secure a Level 3 laboratory could be if not even the U.S. Army could keep its toxic little laboratory pets on the leash.

The University Needs to Conduct Bleeding Edge Research. This is a specious argument. There are a lot of medical issues that cry out for urgent scientific study but that do not require the University to sell its soul to Mephistopheles. If the University wants to do cutting edge scie nce for science's sake, then let it research cures for the myriad of congenital, autoimmune and neurological disorders that strike all people everywhere.

Scientists and medical researchers cannot conduct military related work as detachedly as though they are playing with Tinker Toys. The argument that the U.W. needs to conduct leading edge bio-terror research in order to maintain its academic edge is as bankrupt as the argument that it needs to develop thermonuclear weapons in order to attract the best nuclear physicists. Just as all who develop the underlying technology of war bear responsibility with war's perpetrators for the misery they unleash, so, too, must the U.W. accept responsibility for the weaponized technologies that its biocontainment research would inevitably produce.

The Biocontainment Laboratory Will Be Safe. Bio-research laboratories of all levels around the country – including Level 4 – have suffered security and containment breaches in the past, and they certainly will suffer them in the future. There is no technology that humankind cannot screw up, and there is no computer technology that does not occasionally malfunction due to a software glitch, an electrocuted insect, a hack, or a ten cent piece of hardware failure. Anyone who feels secure in the hands of modern technology obviously has not used a personal computer.

Moreover, as some have already pointed out in public forums, the U.W.'s research at its biocontainment laboratory will be secret. No one will know what they are really up to there and the public will never be told if, accidentally or otherwise, they leak some fast-replicating bio-agent into the neighborhood ecosystem.

Additionally, the University's bio-terror laboratory will first have to create the weaponized pathogens they want to immunize us against, which means, in essence, that the U.W. wil l be developing bio-weapons of extreme potency in order to create the counter-measures to them. The University's researchers will develop their “test pathogens” through genetic engineering of existing bacteria and viruses, which is as smart as creating dozens of fast-breeding microbial Frankensteins in order to test whether they can kill them after all.

Neither the Military Nor Homeland Security Is Funding This Research. This argument is false. All research now serves the interest of the military, directly or indirectly. Except for the rare instances of individual initiative, all big science projects (including everything now associated with NASA) are nurtured by what Dwight Eisenhower accurately described in the 1950s as the military-industrial complex. Science has been in the service of war all the way back to Archimedes. The name of the ostensible funding source for scientific/medical research is irre levant in an age when all government institutions are interlocked and serve the Administration's same über-goal of preemptive military aggression. It is an unfortunate fact that most scientists and engineers graduated by American universities will end up employed either directly or indirectly by the military or its contractors. That is no justification, however, for building one more military related research facility at a publicly owned state university.

Even if the work of the proposed bio-terror research laboratory is purely defensive, then it is as much a military provocation as the development of a national anti-ballistic missile shield. That which would protect Americans alone against a bio-military threat will make other peoples more vulnerable to that same threat from America, wherefore they will work all the harder to overcome our defenses. Thus, the U.W.'s biocontainment laboratory would 'contain' nothing but, ra ther, would increase the very risk it would purportedly protect us from. In short, there is no such thing as a defensive weapons research program, for the strong defense serves the interest of a strong offense.

One More Bio-research Laboratory Won't Matter. There are already many biocontainment research facilities scattered around Seattle. Nevertheless, that does not mean we should have one more. In fact, let us scrutinize each of the existing laboratories as closely as we scrutinize the proposed project, and then let us shut them all down, if that is the reasonable thing to do.

Ultimately, it does not matter whether Seattle's opposition to the U.W.'s biocontainment adventure is based on fear, intellect or real-estate-value nimbyism. All serve the same purpose of trying to stop an ill-conceived and dangerous project in its tracks.

Although the state's senators and business leaders certainly have a lready given their back-door blessing to this endeavor, it is appropriate to let them know that they may pay a social, academic, political and economic price if they try to ram something down the communities' throats that the communities do not want. That price could be paid in the withdrawal of endowment support from the University, in the tarnished PR image caused by civil disobedience when the bulldozers start to break ground, and in the withdrawal of financial and ballot support for certain candidates who run roughshod over local interests. In an age of squeaker elections when even the Governor's election hangs on handfuls of disputed votes, the electorate can parlay that uncertainty into a demand that its wishes be respected.

Back in Washington D.C., the Administration that doles out the political pork must be laughing out loud. Washington State, which did not vote for those who hold power, and specifically Seattle (which politically i nclines more toward Canada than toward Texas), would seem to be the most illogical place to site a bio-terrorism laboratory on this scale. But in the demonic mind of those who know how to pay back political heterodoxy with political terrorism of their own, there is nothing more suitable than that biological warfare research should be conducted right smack in the “lefty” city that wants it least.

The next public meeting on the proposed biocontainment laboratory will be held on campus of the University of Washington in Seattle, Room 310 of the HUB, Monday April 11, 2005 from 4:00 – 6:00 pm.


Post a Comment

<< Home