Silence by André Goffinet
The commentary by Popescu et al. expresses concern that gain-of-function research has gotten a bad rap. The commentary first notes that gain-of-function research describes a wide array of genetic methods, including the use of fluorescent proteins in basic research, the creation of mouse models for studying disease, and the creation of new crops able to feed a growing human population. The commentary then insinuates that concerns about gain-of-function research that have been voiced by scientists, the press, policy makers, and the public threaten to halt progress in all of these areas and more. The commentary ends by arguing that current concerns over gain-of-function research should be countered through increased efforts to promote scientific literacy, as well as change the public perception about what biosafety and biosecurity means.
The commentary by Popescu et al. is misleading and condescending. In discussions of risky pathogen research, there is indeed a mismatch between the terminology used in the popular press (“gain-of-function”) and the terminology used in science and science policy (“gain-of-function research of concern,” or GOFROC). But rather than clarify this distinction, Popescu et al. frame GOFROC as being inseparable from a much broader array of safe and important genetic techniques. In this way, the commentary weaponizes an otherwise benign mismatch in vocabulary in order to persuade readers that the regulation of risky research on dangerous pathogens is too complex and nuanced for anyone but experts (like them) to weigh in on. Popescu et al. also minimize legitimate concerns about risky pathogen research, attributing these concerns to disinformation campaigns or scientific illiteracy.
The public is concerned about risky pathogen research for a very simple reason: risky pathogen research might have caused the COVID-19 pandemic, and could at any time cause a new pandemic. The public has every right to insist that substantial new restrictions be put on pathogen research to ensure that their lives are never again endangered by overly ambitious scientists. If experts in pathogen biology, public health, biosafety, and biosecurity want to help, they can do so by formulating new regulations and policies that ensure public safety while still facilitating critical research. But until these expert communities acknowledge the inherent right of the public to weigh in on risky pathogen research, and until they acknowledge the unsettling possibility that COVID-19 might have arisen from precisely this kind of research, the public’s trust in these experts will continue to suffer, and the ability of these experts to help shape future safety standards will continue to diminish.
Justin B. Kinney, is an Associate Professor in the Simons Center for Quantitative Biology at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. He received a Ph.D. in Physics from Princeton University in 2008, is a co-author on >40 journal articles, and serves as project leader on two National Institutes of Health research grants. His lab has developed widely-used research methods, including methods that are now used to understand the effects of mutations present in variants of SARS-CoV-2.