The difference between smart students and not-so-smart students is that the not-so-smart students will screw up in predictable ways, while the smart ones will screw up in completely novel and unexpected ways (of course, we never screwed anything up…). With that in mind, this bit from a Government Accounting Office (‘GAO’) report about high-containment laboratories (those that work with BL-3 and BL-4 pathogens) is chilling (pdf; boldface mine):
For example, while investigating a power outage incident in its recently constructed BSL-4 laboratory, the CDC later determined that, some time earlier, a critical grounding cable buried in the ground outside the building had been cut by construction workers digging at an adjacent site. The cutting of the grounding cable, which had hitherto gone unnoticed by CDC facility managers, compromised the electrical system of the facility that housed the BSL-4 laboratory. Given that grounding cables were cut, it is apparent that the building’s integrity as it related to adjacent construction was not adequately supervised. CDC officials stated in 2009 that standard procedures under local building codes did not require monitoring of the integrity of the new BSL-4 facility’s electrical grounding. This incident highlighted the risks inherent in relying on local building codes to ensure the safety of high-containment laboratories, as there are no building codes and testing procedures specifically for those laboratories.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t do any BL-3 or BL-4 research, but we need to be much more rigorous about the costs and benefits of this research. Mistakes will be made. It’s worth keeping this in mind: