Strange Cultures (strangecultur.es) is written by me, Edward Hammond. It is about the interlinked issues of transparency and safety in biological research, particularly research with dangerous human (and other) pathogens. It will mainly, but not exclusively, chronicle my experiences using the Public Access Provisions of the NIH Guidelines to access, analyze, and identify significant occurrences – such as accidents or ill-advised research – at US labs.
Since labs are frequently reluctant to reveal such information, Strange Cultures will also report on the often contentious process of obtaining the information itself, including secrecy and cover-up attempts by universities and other labs. Nothing aggravates me more than public institutions, and publicly-funded institutions, that resist public accountability.
In 1999, I co-founded a small nonprofit called the Sunshine Project. Our interest was in biological weapons control and UN negotiations. Following 9/11 and the anthrax letters, the US biodefense program dramatically expanded. Trying to keep up with the expansion, I seized on the Public Access Provisions as a means by which to keep tabs on the openness of US biodefense labs. I filed requests for information with Institutional Biosafety Committees (IBCs) for items they are required to release to the public.
I did not expect what happened next. My foray into the transparency of research quickly mutated into something scarier and even more fundamental. IBCs, supposedly the US National Institute of Health’s bulwark of safety and security, repeatedly turned out to be in a horrible state of disorganization. Time and time again, universities and others tried to evade my requests. Ultimately, many committees could not respond to requests for their records because they didn’t have any! These IBCs only existed on paper and were not meeting or carrying out their responsibilities. Sure, there were some committees that did their job, but far too often the IBC system was pure fiction.
That work was documented in Sunshine Project and peer reviewed publications. [Links will come here as I muster the time.] Perhaps the most notable single event stemming from that research was when, alerted by me, the FBI and CDC shut down laboratories at Texas A&M that had failed to report laboratory-acquired infections, in violation of US law. Heads rolled, and A&M eventually coughed up $1 million to settle the violations.
Has it gotten any better? Yes and no. And that’s what this website will be about.
Then and now, I spend time on a number of issues that are not directly related to lab safety (read about that at Prickly Research, my consultancy). My work on lab safety and IBCs is, in general, an unpaid side job. If you are interested in supporting it with your skills or money, please contact me.