"A top issue at any university is diversity, and that includes sexual preferences," protests Kerr. "We can't and don't want to discriminate. Yet this law forces you to do so."
It likewise prohibits access to anyone who has ever been committed to a mental institution. Taken literally, that includes anyone who's checked into a hospital ward or in-patient psychiatric clinic for depression or even an eating disorder such as bulimia. Trickier yet may be the exclusion of "any unlawful user of a controlled substance."
"Without downplaying the importance of being careful and handling agents appropriately, we're still talking about research going on within a university environment," frets Kerr. "As an administrator, I don't want to put technical staff, graduate students, and postdocs at risk of being charged under this law for pursuing research."
As dean of the University of Louisville's graduate school, Atlas echoes Kerr's fears: "If you're working with a select agent, the Patriot Act says you have to exclude restricted persons or they go to jail and you go to jail, as does anyone who has given them access, right down to the janitor [who unlocked the laboratory door]]."
All this may slow some important research -- though Barbara Johnson, president of the American Biological Safety Association, scoffs at such concerns and predicts the opposite result. "The concept of potential prison time or large monetary fines is not new to science and research," she says, citing the consequences of breaching Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules on workplace safety in the laboratory. Johnson contends that even if the new regulations result initially in a small drop in research on select agents, that will change dramatically when the federal funding spigots open up. "When the bioterrorism dollars start flowing, those institutes that are compliant with this new law are going to be able to expand their programs tremendously, and those that don't have programs will want to start them."
Maybe, but the road to a golden age of bioterrorism research may be lined with a few victims of the new legislation. Ask graduate student Foral, who describes his ordeal with the FBI and U.S. Attorney's office as Kafkaesque.
"Wouldn't it have been a reasonable solution to have just told me to get rid of them?" he asks of the two pathology specimens found in his freezer. "To this day, I really can't understand why that wasn't done."
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.