Building a Biosecurity Culture: People Make the Difference
By Ryan N. Burnette, PhD, Director of Biosafety and Biosecurity Programs
Developing and maintaining a culture of biosafety and biosecurity requires a combination of regulations, institutional policies and leadership, risk mitigation, and financial investments—but the most critical component is people. It’s within these people, who take pride in the fact they have a “safe and secure” model of operating, that a culture of safety and security flourishes.
Biosafety is no different. The most important factor is people. A biosafety culture is an environment of awareness, appreciation, commitment to continuous improvement, and constant attention to details that reduce laboratory acquired infections and mitigate the risks of dangerous biological agents. The result is a palpable pride in the work these laboratorians (the people) do.
I have worked with many institutions in various countries that show true pride in the biosafety culture they have developed and nurtured. The best examples of biosafety cultures that I have seen are in regions of the world that are hungry for expertise and display a tangible pride in the programs they are building. These regions often lack any true regulatory framework and make the best of grossly under-resourced laboratories. In these conditions, the best defense these laboratories and programs have against biological threats is their unflinching commitment to making biosafety a critical element in their laboratory programs.
What about biosecurity? It may seem logical that a culture of biosafety would automatically lend itself to a culture of biosecurity. They share similar platforms of interest; threats and vulnerabilities; potential risks to reputation, finances, and integrity; and even similar concerns about lack of regulatory framework. Yet, there are fundamental differences between safety and security that do not allow biosafety cultural programs to directly translate to a biosecurity culture. In fact, the very strength of a biosafety culture may be the primary barrier to developing a robust culture of biosecurity.
I call this the “Team Effect.” Although individual responsibility is necessary, biosafety programs require the efforts of all involved, looking out for each other and the program as a whole. Though biosecurity is also a team effort, there are elements that, on the surface, seem to pit individuals against each other.
We have all visited mass transportation venues, like rail stations or airports, that are littered with signs reading, “If you see something, say something.” In the security world, this moderately effective technique turns every person into a set of eyes looking for suspicious activity. Security managers will tell you that incoming reports of suspicious activity are common and helpful. But does this work in a laboratory? What about with people who are less confident or too shy to speak up? This can be a difficult barrier for some to cross.
The greatest potential threat to a laboratory biosecurity program is a person. Traditional security professionals use the terms “threat” and “person” interchangeably. Without a doubt, people are threats to laboratory programs handling dangerous or valuable biological materials—and these can be malicious or negligent people.
The hallmark of a biosecurity program is identifying and preventing threats. So, one major difference between biosafety and biosecurity programs is the shift from “looking out for each other” to “looking at each other.” This may seem extreme, but there are countless examples of security lapses because individuals did not want to report or cause unintentional scrutiny toward a coworker. For example, imagine a workplace that requires a visible identification badge of all employees. You pass an individual you have seen in the office before and notice that person is not displaying their ID badge on this day. Do you confront them? Do you report this to the site security office? Do you do nothing, as you have seen this person in the office on other occasions? Simple security policies like this often go unaddressed because the observer wishes to avoid conflict and embarrassment. This common dilemma is a fundamental breakdown of a basic security protocol.
At the end of the day, both biosafety and biosecurity add up to safe, secure, and responsible science. There is something about the word “responsible” that empowers individuals and groups to embrace what is necessary to securely conduct vital work in thousands of laboratories.
Since people make the difference, the two most important factors for establishing a robust biosecurity program—and thereby promoting safe, secure, and responsible research—are empowerment and honesty. Everyone in research should be empowered to protect the agents they work with and the work they are doing. When people are empowered, responsibility becomes a sense of pride instead of a chore. Honesty also goes a long way with safety and security programs. Individuals and institutions should be able to take an honest look at their program’s vulnerabilities, priorities, and strengths. This honest assessment of a program through an objective lens remains the best way to identify weaknesses and begin improvements.
Together, empowerment and honesty can lay the groundwork for a culture of biosecurity. People are the most important factor. As for the technical elements, like threat assessments, vulnerability analyses, and others? Well, those details are easy compared to culture. I’ll save those for another day.