Washington Editor

A poll of 1,000 scientists revealed that a majority believes the scientific community is best qualified to establish research guidelines when dealing with potential bioterrorism agents.

The results are not surprising, particularly to a representative of the polling organization, who called the outcome a "self-fulfilling prophecy." That is, 72 percent of responding scientists said scientists should be making such decisions.

Indeed, what was more interesting, said Tamara Zemlo, director of the Science Advisory Board of the polling organizer BioInformatics LLC, is that ethicists were selected over politicians by a three-to-one margin as the next best-qualified professions to help determine a defense research agenda.

"What is really happening now is that the government is very involved in setting the research agenda and the research priorities, [but that] is kind of at odds with what the scientists want," Zemlo told BioWorld Today. "Scientists are very protective of what they want to work on and they feel they have a right to pursue a certain research agenda and they don't want to be controlled or limited, especially by politicians."

The Science Advisory Board, created by BioInformatics in 1997, is an online community of more than 20,000 scientists and clinical investigators who come together to express their opinions on the technologies and products they use in their professions, Zemlo said. BioInformatics is a research and consulting firm based in Arlington, Va.

The advisory board believes that any comprehensive research agenda for defense against bioterrorism should be developed through a systematic planning process that involves multiple stakeholders, including scientists. The objective of such a process should be to develop an agenda that includes short-term, intermediate and long-term goals for research on the multitude of agents that could be used to conduct a bioterrorist attack.

The poll was meant to be a quick snapshot of the scientific community, Zemlo said, adding that an in-depth report based on a larger survey is expected to be released by BioInformatics in mid-July.

In that survey, conducted at the end of June, scientists were asked to name diseases or potential bioterrrorism agents they work with, and to list the biosafety level at which they conduct biodefense research. They also were asked to name their particular focus in biodefense research - that is, whether it involves antibiotics, antivirals, bacterial toxins, vector control strategies, vaccines or others.

Beyond that, scientists were asked: "What bureaucratic roadblocks have made conducting your biodefense research challenging?" A few of the listed choices on the survey were limited access to biological agents, excessive documentation, lack of suitable containment facilities and publication restrictions.

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