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NBAF remains the clear choice

By Walt Braun

So now, after years of study, an exhaustive national search for the right spot, and the selection of Manhattan for the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility, federal officials might go in another direction?

So it seems. A National Research Council committee met last week in Washington, D.C., to consider the idea. It’s preposterous.

NBAF isn’t the first project to be stalled by the federal bureaucracy or funding woes. Funding for the facility was not included in President Barack Obama’s proposed 2013 federal budget, and NBAF received just $50 million of the $150 million expected this year. Moreover, some estimates for the facility have risen from $650 million to more than $1 billion.

Given efforts to balance the federal budget, every billion dollars counts. But NBAF is no earmark, no “bridge to nowhere.” Members of both parties and scientists and defense officials alike have described it as a national priority.

Real priorities — not items such as weapons that politicians want for their districts more than the Pentagon wants for our nation’s defense — deserve to be treated as such when funding is distributed.

As Jamie Johnson, director of the Office of Science and Technology at the Department of Homeland Security, said, recognition of the need for a BSL-4 facility to replace and improve on the outdated site on Plum Island, N.Y., goes back 15 years — even before DHS existed. NBAF is that facility.

The committee met Friday, ostensibly to consider three options: building NBAF as currently envisioned, building a scaled-down version to be outlined by the National Research Council, and continuing to operate the Plum Island facility while outsourcing certain BSL-4 research to other sites, including foreign labs.

Farming out to other nations vital research into deadly pathogens that could affect our food supply seems contrary to protecting our homeland security. Similarly, scaling back the project — in effect, scaling back research into deadly pathogens — requires ignoring or denying the threat of well-known pathogens such as foot-and-mouth disease and dozens of infectious diseases that have emerged in the last decade, many of which are capable of being transmitted from animals to humans.

National facilities such as NBAF are wrapped in multiple layers of politics, and it’s possible that President Obama or his advisers have lost interest in NBAF or simply don’t think much of the threats NBAF would confront. That would be shortsighted bordering on folly.

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