While the debate raged on, the Emerging Pathogens Research Centre at the University of Ottawa developed a proposal for identifying such research projects at the institutional level. Called the Institutional Risk Assessment Process (IRAP), it argues for a local decision on research, using a committee of experts capable of assessing research proposals, anticipating potentially dangerous outcomes, and recommending specific steps that would minimize or eliminate such outcomes.
This all seems reasonable, and it could even improve a research proposal's chances for funding by anticipating the funders' concerns and guaranteeing effective steps to ensure safety. The Obama administration seems to be proposing something similar in its February 21 statement on DURC.
As a well-scarred veteran of campus politics, I like the idea of keeping the decision as close as possible to the lab rather than awaiting the decision of some higher bureaucratic plane of existence. I also like the idea of obliging researchers and colleagues to think through the implications of their research.
The IRAP proposal isn't clear on when the committee would convene itself. Sure, a new H5N1 research proposal would obviously require a session with the committee, but who really decides what is innocuous and what is potentially dangerous? And what if an innocuous research project turns up a surprising and scary result?
Finally, the process itself would have to anticipate and forestall an outcome known in Chinese politics as killing the chicken to scare the monkeys: Rejecting or otherwise making impossible a research proposal and thereby signalling others to avoid the field entirely as politically hazardous.