President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Meeting the Challenges of Bioterrorism
November 20, 2002
Our informal motto “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations” is one that takes on special significance as the world engages in a battle against international bioterrorism. Universities can assume—indeed have an obligation to assume—a lead role in addressing the critical and complex scientific, technological, societal and policy challenges posed by this growing threat. Two graduate students at Princeton, Rebecca Katz and Scott Steele, helped arrange one of Princeton’s responses to these challenges this fall.
In 1995, while working in a public health clinic in India, Rebecca Katz, currently a doctoral candidate in the Woodrow Wilson School, contracted a disease caused by the bacterium Brucella which is common in parts of Southeast Asia but rare in North America. Being a responsible health care consumer, Rebecca conducted her own in-depth study about its causes and effects. She discovered that the best, most complete research existed in the bioweapons literature because in the 1950s Brucella was the first agent weaponized for use against humans by the U.S.
While Rebecca eventually threw off the more debilitating effects of the bug, an interest in bioweapons remained with her. Her plan to go into public health took a distinct turn toward bioweapons and civilian biodefense, and her challenge became finding an institution and an adviser who would allow her to pursue what was then a relatively esoteric interest. Professor Burton Singer, Charles and Marie Robertson Professor of Public and International Affairs at Princeton, was intrigued by the topic of bioweaponery’s threat, which then was related to but somewhat on the periphery of his own research interests. Professor Singer convinced Rebecca that Princeton would be the best place for her to pursue her doctoral work, in part because of the flexibility we could afford her to study a topic that demands a cross-discipline approach.
This fall Rebecca teamed up with Scott Steele, one of my own doctoral students in molecular biology, to organize a conference around bioterrorism. Scott’s interest in the policy side of science dates back at least to his experience after college working at the National Institutes of Health where he was exposed to the public health threats of infectious disease. Their symposium this fall on “Science, Security and Preparedness” attracted leading experts from universities, the science community, government agencies, and industry. The event succeeded just as the students intended; its sessions educated the general public while providing experts with ample opportunity to pool knowledge.
This free flow of information, especially among experts, was one of the fundamental issues discussed during the symposium. As Margaret Hamburg, vice president for biological programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative in Washington, noted, government scrutiny—in the name of national security—of just how public and accessible research on select agents should be is increasing. Science is driven by the free exchange of ideas, and it is critical that the science community engage actively in discussion with legislators and government officials concerning what kinds of research truly need to remain confidential. (Princeton has a long-standing policy of not conducting “classified” research and of insisting that the research we do conduct be subject to critical scrutiny and broad dissemination.)
One of the most revealing sessions was led by Jack Killen, assistant director for biodefense research at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the National Institutes of Health. He noted that federal spending on biodefense had been steady at about $50 million annually prior to the anthrax terrorism that claimed five lives last year. In the current fiscal year, spending jumped to $274 million, and the budget is expected to reach $1.75 billion in 2004 and remain at that level indefinitely. As Dr. Killen said, such a rapid increase in funding for any aspect of biomedical science is “completely unprecedented in the history of NIH.” Universities and industry are expected to receive about 85 percent of these research funds, which will be overseen by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who received an honorary degree from Princeton last spring for his outstanding leadership in the fight against another global threat, the AIDS epidemic.
Dr. Killen hopes that the influx of federal dollars will support basic research on biological scourges. It is highly possible for bioweapons research to produce treatments for diseases that are still common in some developing countries or, like the West Nile virus, are spreading to the United States and other areas where they were either unknown or thought to have been eradicated. This “spill-over” effect from bioweapons research into other, potentially life-saving, fields is extremely important, but such transfers are not new. As Professor of Chemistry Warren Warren, acting director of the Center for Photonics and Optoelectronic Materials, aptly puts it: “Many of the spectacular achievements of twentieth century science followed the same simple paradigm: as new directions in basic atomic physics matured, they were adopted by chemists and applied physicists. This work in turn enabled applications in biological, clinical, and environmental science, driven both by universities and by innovative companies.”
These are challenging times, but with concerned, responsible and well educated citizens like Rebecca and Scott, we have a better chance of turning these challenges into opportunities that can benefit all humankind.