Foral's supervisors tried to explain to criminal investigators that when the student added the specimens to his reference collection he was doing nothing out of the ordinary in this line of research. "That's the training graduate students get," says Kirklyn Kerr, dean of the University of Connecticut agricultural college, where Foral continues to study the West Nile virus. "My own faculty advisor used to tell me, â€Never discard anything unless you have a duplicate.'"
Last July, federal prosecutors formally charged Foral with "unjustified possession of a select agent" under the rules of the Patriot Act, a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. "He wasn't authorized to save it," says U.S. Attorney spokesperson Delcie Thibault, explaining the decision to prosecute. "He had never done any research with anthrax, and he had no plans to do so."
Citing Foral's cooperation throughout the investigation, the prosecutors offered a deal involving visits to a probation officer, community service and the insertion of a letter in Foral's ROTC file detailing his "illegal activities" -- no small matter for a student who had long planned a career as a military doctor. Foral felt trapped: "I had no choice but to accept [the deal]. Lawyers are too expensive, and I'm in the midst of applying to medical schools."
Was this the intent of the law?
"Certainly it puts a chill over anyone trying to do research," says Harvard microbiologist John Collier, a leading anthrax researcher who has since destroyed his sole strain of the bacteria.
Naive students are not the only researchers to run afoul of new federal interest in the handling of toxic materials. In January, prominent infectious-disease researcher Thomas Butler, of Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, ended up in handcuffs after he was alleged to have falsely reported several vials of plague bacteria as missing. According to the journal Science and other publications, Butler admitted he made the false report to cover up the fact that he had forgotten to properly document destroying the bacteria, as required by the new rules. Released on bond, he was made to give up his passport, agree to stay entirely away from biological research materials, and wear an electronic monitor, pending trial. Butler was asking for trouble, clearly, but a colleague at his university described the incident as "a minor problem that's been handled with a wartime mentality."
Not surprisingly, some liability-
conscious universities have begun advising their scientists to immediately destroy stocks of any biological agents not currently in use. Among the instances most disturbing to researchers was Iowa State's wholesale destruction of its entire anthrax collection -- the original "Ames strain" linked to the fatal postal contaminations.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.