21 December 2011

Should Dangerous Research be Published?

AAAS Science Insider reports on the debate over whether potentially dangerous research should be published in scientific journals. This particular case centers on research on the transmission of  bird flu in two papers submitted to Science and Nature:
Two groups of scientists who carried out highly controversial studies with the avian influenza virus H5N1 have reluctantly agreed to strike certain details from manuscripts describing their work after having been asked to do so by a U.S. biosecurity council. The as-yet unpublished papers, which are under review at Nature and Science, will be changed to minimize the risks that they could be misused by would-be bioterrorists.

But the stricken details may still be made available to influenza scientists who have a legitimate interest in knowing them under a new system the journals and U.S. government officials have been actively debating for some time.

The two papers have both been reviewed at length by the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSSAB), and both have been the subject of intense global media attention the past 2 months. They have also triggered debates among scientists, security experts, and officials within various branches of the U.S. government.
The science advisory board to HHS recommended that the papers not be published in full, and the agency that it advises concurred. Both teams of scientists disagreed with the recommendations, but nonetheless agreed to remove details from their papers.

Science has responded by asking for a plan from the US government for how the research results would become available to qualified individuals:
Our response will be heavily dependent upon the further steps taken by the U.S. government to set forth a written, transparent plan to ensure that any information that is omitted from the publication will be provided to all those responsible scientists who request it, as part of their legitimate efforts to improve public health and safety.
Nature appears to concur.

In 2003, a group of scientific journal editors issued a Statement on Scientific Publication and Security (here in PDF) which offers very little in the way of concrete guidance for such situations. This is a topic that deserves a bit more thought and clarification.


  1. It's incredible that NIH funded it.

  2. Given that the news story in essence gives the methods by which the transmissible strain was produced -- directed evolution geared to select for transmissibility between ferrets -- it's hard to see why publishing the sequence could do any more harm. If I were going to generate the strain, I'd just repeat the evolution procedure. No fancy molecular genetics needed; just some H5N1 stock, and a few hundred ferrets.

    I agree that the research should not have been funded. The H5N1 research community is behind it because it will make H5N1 research more fundable. But deliberately creating dangerous human pathogens is grossly irresponsible and unethical. This isn't basic research, and the news you can make a bug contagious by selecting for contagiousness is Darwin 101.

  3. Dangerous research is kept secret all of the time. The Hubble Space Telescope is just a spy satellite turned the other way. The Sonus submarine detection system in the Atlantic pioneered a major area in AI to interpret the signals from networks of sensors.

    It was of course necessary not to publish this research.

    Other public research can be declared to be top secret and the investigators barred from publication. This affected the RSA code.

  4. Just to add, that all technology developed in the Manahattan project was declared to be the property of the US government and patented by them. Vanevar Bush created this policy because he was concerned that individual investigators would have legal control of vital pieces of the national defense.

    Currently nuclear weapon technology is specifically excluded by law from eligibility for patent protection. It is created in the public domain. Other private technology can be declared to have been created top secret for similar reasons

  5. I think that the funding agency (especially if the gov't) can/should make these sorts of stipulations on the research that goes on (as some standard legal item within the contract).

    I would prefer that to the scientists, scientist group (like AAAS), journal editor board, or research institution themselves making such decisions.

    The funding agencies at least have the purview, and in particular the (public)government funding can be subjected to oversight and/or review. Even if the government is redacting information, it is still technically more open than if one of the other above stake-holders were to redact the information.

  6. How will Wikileaks or a similar organization fit into this? Some graduate student or technician will disagree with the research and disperse all information on the Internet. This is allegedly what happened with the release of the American diplomatic cables to Wikileaks. The US government alleges that they were released by a private first class

  7. I am very surprised that there is not more interest in this topic. The virus case is an example in which shows the danger of the uncontrolled propagation of certain types of knowledge throughout the population. Yet it is this property of the Internet that is transforming our society. It is very difficult to keep secrets in the era of Wikileak-type organizations. The Internet is the new source of wealth in our society but is it making it less safe? Information may want to be free but do we agree with it on this?