[Today includes discussion of a sewage spill at USDA’s Ames, Iowa lab, and an interesting incident of the biosafety staff at a major northeastern institution rebelling against an IBC reluctant to report problems.]
You’d be forgiven for thinking that this post is about a tuberculosis lab accident. It’s not. At least not exactly. It’s about many of them, and what they mean, and don’t mean, as best as I can determine at this point in time.
For the past several months I’ve had FOIA pending with NIH for reports of lab accidents. In some cases, I am also requesting such reports directly from the institutions themselves. At this point, neither process is complete, so my observations are based on incomplete data.
The potential for accidents, and here I include unintended but potentially dangerous outcomes, is the single biggest reason for the existence of the Guidelines. And the potential for those accidents to have (human, animal, or plant) health, economic, and reputational impacts on the public is the biggest reason for the existence of the Guidelines’ Public Access Provisions.
There are a lot of issues to unpack and discuss about lab accidents and their reporting. This first look is only an overview. This is not a post about any specific lab accident, although you can expect such posts in the future.
One of the purposes of this website is to document a few things I’ve learned from years of tracking Institutional Biosafety Committees using the Public Access Provisions of the NIH Guidelines. The aim is to be useful to others who will file future requests. In addition to talking about the intersection of the Guidelines and laws, this post is a bit of a walk through of an NIH Guidelines request that may help you not fall into traps that I learned about the hard way.
A few days ago, the question of how the Guidelines relate to state open records laws first came up in reference to the dysfunctional situation at the University of Tennessee. This post goes further into the Guidelines’ status vis-à-vis FOIA and state records laws, because it is a really quite an important issue. If you don’t know how these different obligations relate to one another, and don’t relate to one another, the sociopathic but clever lawyers at universities and other labs will use your ignorance to screw you left, right, and center.
Until recently, the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) served as the country’s highest level review body for novel biotech research safety questions. But NIH disbanded it last year. That leaves, in most circumstances, the frequently dysfunctional local Institutional Biosafety Committees (IBCs) to be the first – and last – line of defense against really stupid ideas and screw ups.
The quality of biosafety committee meeting minutes ranges from being quite good (rare) to abysmal (not so rare). In future posts at this website, I will make reference to the quality of disclosure by IBCs in their minutes and other records.
So here at the outset it’s a good time to discuss what IBC minutes should and shouldn’t be. To do that, today’s victims are the University of Texas at Austin and Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
I am a student of history, but I don’t profess to be a historian of the NIH Guidelines nor of biotech research in the United States. Although I do hope that if a history of this obscure topic is one day written that I will earn at least some mention for the work I’ve put in, on and off for twenty years, to preserve the public right to know about the research that it funds at American universities, research institutes and, sometimes, private companies.
The starting point is, really, a deal that was cut over a period of years in the mid to late 1970s between the US government, represented mainly by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and an assortment of leading biologists representing their disciplines. The deal was about how to govern the safety of genetic engineering experiments, which were starting to happen in earnest at the time.