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Home > Focus > A discussion with Congressman Michael E. Capuano - part 1

A discussion with Congressman Michael E. Capuano - part 1

by Redazione FGB [1], 24 October 2011

In this, the first of a series of interviews with some of the major players in the US innovation and scientific research scene, Jonathan Hankins talks to Congressman Michael E. Capuano [2], whose territory in Boston hosts some of the biggest names in research and innovation today.

Arguments surrounding the role that politics plays in innovation, and innovation as politics, have long been debates within the Bassetti Foundation project. If we view innovation as a political act, requiring will, technique, technology and infrastructure then we can also argue that responsibility lies within the political domain.
Innovation can also be seen as a political act in itself, as it brings change and effects society in both positive and negative ways.

In one of  my preceding posts entitled 'Government Investment and Cuts in Biodefense Research [3]' I touched upon various current issues within the US science and innovation community, including the forthcoming cuts in scientific research, problems with some of the new high security biodefense labs including the unopened complex in Boston, and biodefense spending in general.
The transcription below is of a conversation that took place between myself and Congressman Michael E. Capuano as a follow up to that posting, and addresses many of the issues raised therein.
The discussion offers a fascinating insight into the working life of a politician who represents the interests of probably the highest concentration of scientists and innovators in the world today.

US Congressman Michael E. Capuano represents the Eighth Congressional District of Massachusetts [4], a position that he has held since January of 1999.  He is a trained lawyer, whose district includes Boston University, MIT and Harvard University, to name but three of his more than 30 world renowned education and research facilities.
The Boston University Biodefense Complex is also within his district, a high security complex that has yet to open due to legal action taken by citizens against the complex.

On behalf of the Bassetti foundation I would like to thank him for the time he generously dedicated to this interview, and also to warmly thank his press department for organizing the meeting.  

Our discussion addressed the following issues:

- Boston University Biodefense Complex
- Responsibility towards society
- Access to scientific information
- Proposed research budget cuts
- The law and best practices
- External pressures

The following is an unedited transcription of the conversation.


Jonathan Hankins
As well as being interested in responsibility in innovation, the Bassetti Foundation is also interested in public participation in politics with the argument that larger public participation might lead to more responsible decision making in innovation, and one of the issues I would like to address is the problem at the Boston University Biodefense Complex.
A lot of money has been invested and it has not opened yet, do you think it will open?

Congressman Capuano
I don't know.

Could you just give me your interpretation of the problem with the complex please?

Well we are dealing with potentially dangerous research that has to be conducted with the very highest level of security, and they have not dotted all the I's and crossed all the T's in the way that they should have.
Some people in the community are opposed to it, not all, but some are, but that is really secondary. It doesn't matter if one person is opposed to it or not, the numbers of people opposed are really of secondary importance.
The society has a specific level of security that is required at that level of lab and it has to be met. And that is the controversy. They have recently asked to open up the lab (it is not just a level 4 lab)...

Yes they have recently asked to open it up as a level 3 lab

We have many level 3 labs in the Greater Boston area and I think that Boston University already has one, so I don't anticipate any problems with that request but I don't know, every one of those labs has to meet certain requirements as well.
Once those requirements are satisfied it will open.

This leads me to the question of the trade off between responsibility to the collective and the society and the obvious need and economic advantages of this kind of technology and research.

There are always trade offs, there are trade offs driving the car down the street, it pollutes the air and you can get hit by one, but we make those trade offs every day and on every issue and this is no different.

And what is your interpretation of responsibility?

It depends on the issue, different things carry different levels of responsibility, I do not impose my definition upon anybody else.

Do you feel that your definition of responsibility changes over time, through experience?

It depends on the issue, it depends on how it impacts my constituents, every issue is different and I approach it differently. I cannot be the main champion of every single issue so I look to see if there is somebody else that I can hand over responsibility to on a given issue and if there is, fine, we don't need 10 cooks in the kitchen.
If not, I jump in. And even then I don't jump in every issue, I can't.
I jump in on issues that I feel qualified to handle, or at least more qualified than anybody else so it always depends on the issue, I do not have a generic approach and there are no easy answers.

In Texas, they have had some problems with some of their bio labs, so where do you feel responsibility lies when these events occur? My question is, does responsibility lie with the decision-makers that make the decision to put these operations into practice or does it lie with technicians?

Everywhere. You can have the best program in the world but if people don't adhere to the program it means nothing.
So it lies with the people that set the program, you know this is what you need to do, it lies with the people that do the day to day work, because even if you have the best enforcement in the world there is going to be somebody that falls asleep at some point, so the people who work in the lab and everybody else have some degree of responsibility.
They are different types of responsibility but that is the back up of checks and balances that a good system has, and the redundancies, and there should be redundancies when it comes to potentially dangerous situations.
Driving a car down the street, you have to have a license, the car has to be certified, the brakes have to work, the manufacturers have to make brakes that work so everybody has responsibility.
The driver takes responsibility as well, and so does the pedestrian crossing the street. You are supposed to look both ways. So it is no different.
There are different types of responsibility at different levels, some of it is redundant but that is intentional.

And the responsibility that you or somebody in your position takes in terms of your promotion or negation of such an issue?

My responsibility is that if it is going to get done, is it good for the community that I represent, of 700,000 people, and if it is good for it, is it safe for it? And that is my responsibility, to make sure that it can be as safe as possible and not only that it meets current standards but also that current standards are adequate. That is what I have been focused on.

And in order to help you make these extremely important decisions you must rely on scientific evidence, but one problem as far as I can see is that everybody tends to just tell their side of the story.

In politics that is every situation that has ever walked through the door. And it will be every situation that ever does. Not that people necessarily mean it that way, it is just human nature to see things from your own perspective, and that's fine.
So my job is to try to get through that and get to what I think is the appropriate thing, it is all based on my judgment. There is no book that I can go to that says here is the final answer to any question, so my judgment has to be based on experience.
In this case I am not qualified to know what is safe but you are in my district so... And this is one of my institutions, I have 34. I have some of the most intelligent people in the world within a phone call at any given moment. And one good thing about being a member of Congress is that when we pick up the phone we generally get the calls answered and we can find out who the best person in the world to tell me what the appropriate safety levels at a bio-4 lab are. And we won't find just one, we will find 10, and we have.
We have reached across the world for this. We have asked: Does it work? Do you think our standards are OK? And little by little you build a conclusion. But I have never just relied on one person. I would never do that for anything, especially in this area! I am not a scientist, I don't want to be a scientist, I wasn't trained for it and I don't know anything about it. I have been through the Bio-4 lab and had a look around but I couldn't find my way around it, it is like a rabbit warren so I am not qualified at all.
I am qualified to get on the phone to a lot of very intelligent people and draw a picture for myself,  to determine whether this can be safe, and if so, how? And that is what we have done.
But when it is a scientific issue I rely on scientists and on a transportation issue I rely on transportation experts, but not one, never one, always multiples and the more the merrier.
And the BL-4 because it is so controversial and because it is so unique we have had a pretty broad input, world renowned people that I wouldn't have known before this had started.
I didn't know who the world renowned BL-4 people were, but I do now. And even that, world renowned is very interesting but it doesn't make you the sole and unique person to answer the question It does mean that you have an input, a knowledge and insight that I wouldn't know.
It is a very simple question. Would you, Mr Scientist from France, would you live next to a BL-4 lab? If it was done properly, and if the answer is no well...I have a problem, but the answer has never been no from a scientist working and respected in the field.
In fact some of the scientists I know live within walking distance from a BL-4 lab, and they know better than I do, they do it every day, as to what are appropriate procedures, how they get enforced, they tell me, and we learn it and see if it is being applied.
But at the same time and make no bones about it, they could be the best procedures in the world but if they are not enforced they don't mean anything. So that comes on to BU (Boston University) and BU has had some trip ups in the past and they also know that if they mess it up that place will be locked up and never used.
And that is not good for them and it is not good for Boston. So everybody I think knows what is at stake here.

(>read the second part> [5])


(photo: Crowd forming [6] by TechSavi from Flickr)

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  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Redazione FGB
  2. 2] http://www.house.gov/capuano/
  3. 3] /it/rassegna/2011/09/government_investment_and_cuts.html
  4. 4] http://www.house.gov/capuano/about/index.shtml
  5. 5] /en/focus/2011/10/a_discussion_with_congressman_1.html
  6. 6] http://www.flickr.com/photos/techsavi/4129634131/
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