Competing Images of Risk in the BU Biolab Siting Controversy

Abstract

Following a series of anthrax attacks in late 2001, and in the context of the overall focus on homeland security prompted by the events of September 11th, the National Institutes of Health, through the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, authorized funding for new infectious agents research laboratories. One of the two highest security (BSL-4) facilities was awarded to Boston University, which gained permission to construct the lab in the South End/Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. The proposed laboratory was immediately engulfed in controversy, and despite being built, remains unused. In the context of concurrent debate in state, local, and federal policy venues, this paper examines the “biolab” controversy as a battle over competing frames of what the laboratory “means” and competing conceptions of risk. Even as they altered their strategies to better fit different decision venues, proponents and opponents of the lab have retained core conceptions of what the project represented – whether “national security” or “environmental justice”, “bio-safety” or “bio-terror.” The controversy over siting the BU lab offers insights into how competing narratives about a technology’s purpose and its potential risks shape public acceptance about technology and its uses.