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Watch: Events Since September 11, 2001
& Security News from Federation of American Scientists
After many months of debate, biology researchers announced that they won't
publish information that could be misused by bio-terrorists.
But as this ScienCentral News video reports, the debate over what shouldn't
be published goes on.
Biology's new roles
Biomedical researchers are accustomed to playing a role in saving lives, not
endangering them. But since the anthrax attacks of September 2001, biologists
have been grappling with the issue of whether some of their research findings
could provide new tools of the trade for terrorists.
At the same time, bioscientists must take a more urgent role than ever in
finding new vaccines, drugs and detection methods to defend against bioterrorism—progress
that depends on the sharing of scientific information. The inherent conflict
between these two roles has become the hot topic in biology, and a failure of
the scientific community to resolve it could lead to broad government censorship.
"It is a fundamental duty of the government to protect its citizens from
biological attack," says Gigi
Kwik, a Fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health's Center for
Civilian Biodefense Strategies. "The problem is, because this is such a
complex field with many different sub-disciplines, it's very hard for the government,
which has blunt instruments at its disposal, to really effect change,"
So while it may be tempting to cast scientists' new
plan to police themselves as a response to fears of government intervention,
experts insist that the conflict is not between scientists and the government,
but between biology's new roles.
"Scientists need to be involved, because they're the ones doing the work.They
know more about what's going on in their labs and what kind of information they're
going after," says Kwik. "So it really needs to be a concerted action
between scientists and the government."
Concern and Confusion
Individual scientists, says Kwik, are most concerned about whether they should,
or shouldn't, include their thoughts on whether their work might be misused
by terrorists in their manuscripts.
Kwik has interviewed many scientists "who work in this so-called grey
area," she says. "Their research does in my judgement lower the barriers
towards bioweapons development, but there are clearly beneficent uses for their
research as well. One of the concerns that was brought up by almost every scientist
we talked to was, 'We really don't want to give information.We really want to
be selective in what we say.' They're worried about expressing their own concerns
about bioterrorism because it would be in a public forum and thereby giving
information to terrorists."
President of the American Society
for Microbiology (ASM), which publishes 11 journals, says other authors
are erring in the opposite direction.
"In part what we are seeing today is more authors, in order to get more
attention for their work, will tell us that the research in fact could reveal
dangerous things, so what we're finding is that as we review manuscripts, it's
the authors themselves who are saying 'You really have to be careful of how
people may misuse the information I'm giving in this paper'," Atlas says.
"That's a flag for us and we're wondering, why would you do that?"
he says. "And we're finding some authors think you have to say that to
get it published. That's not the case. Ethical, responsible publishing doesn't
require us being alarmist, and it doesn't require us helping terrorists."
"It's a very fine line because you need information to prepare, and you
need to know the reality of the situation in order to plan for things,"
says Kwik. "It's definitely a hard line, because right now we're at a point
where we can imagine more dangers than we can prevent, and we need to get to
the point where we have a robust biodefense so that we can anticipate dangers,
prepare for them, and hopefully take it off the table."
For the foreseeable future, the dangers are very much on the table, forcing
a major change in how biology and genetics researchers view their work.
Once Upon a Time
"Biology has been kind of a cuddly science. You know, it does good for
us all and it's medicine or drugs," says Christopher Davis, Chief Scientist
a contractor specializing in countering terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
Davis, whose previous career in British intelligence included investigating
former-Soviet Union bioweapons labs, was once a lonely voice warning of the
dangers of bioterrorism.
"In my professional life, I've gone from being someone who most people
thought was crazy to… well it's all pretty obvious, isn't it?" Davis
says. "It wasn't, once upon a time."
"It's been thought, the physicists and the mathematicians have been the
ones we've had to watch because they did, you know, ‘The Bomb,â€™"
says Davis. "Today, the things that can be done [through biology] will
require us… all scientists, a lot of them the very young people, the people
at the bench doing lots of experiments… to think more about the issue.
They can't just do experiments and say, well, it's science. That's no longer
"It's not just about publishing," Kwik says. "What it comes
down to is all the facets of the scientific community need to look at their
practices and their expectations for research and at how they can reduce societal
risk without harming the free flow of science that we need to counter bioterrorism."