Select your localized edition:

Close ×

More Ways to Connect

Discover one of our 28 local entrepreneurial communities »

Be the first to know as we launch in new countries and markets around the globe.

Interested in bringing MIT Technology Review to your local market?

MIT Technology ReviewMIT Technology Review - logo

 

Unsupported browser: Your browser does not meet modern web standards. See how it scores »

{ action.text }

In contrast, the line in biomedical research is blurred, because results in almost any area of basic molecular biology may be fuel for bioterrorism. The problem has been illustrated by several recent publications. Early in 2001, in an article in the Journal of Virology, Australian scientists reported that the insertion of a gene into the mousepox virus had unexpectedly made the virus lethal to mice previously resistant to it. Intended to make mice infertile, the experiment suggested how to engineer human viruses to bypass the immune system. In a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in June 2002, Ariella Rosengard of the University of Pennsylvania described the synthesis of a protein in the smallpox virus that presumably enables it to evade the immune system. The next month, Science published a report by a microbiologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, detailing how to assemble a poliovirus from scratch using commercially available chemicals and DNA synthesis machines.

The mousepox paper was criticized when it appeared as providing a how-to guide for terrorists; after the anthrax attacks, Atlas recalls, its publication was attacked as a huge mistake. And in Congress, according to Science magazine, eight Republicans criticized the poliovirus publication as a “blueprint that could conceivably enable terrorists to inexpensively create human pathogens,” and they called on journal editors to take greater care in what they published. Officials in the Bush administration reportedly suggested that biologists employ the practice adopted by cryptographers-voluntary submission of possibly sensitive papers to sponsoring government agencies prior to publication. Some observers note that academic scientists are already willing to accept restrictions on publication imposed by industrial sponsors. Why not concede to restrictions from government sponsors?

To many, the idea seems impractical. In contrast to, say, the Journal of Cryptology, which publishes fewer than 20 papers annually, the 11 journals sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology alone put out 6,000 papers a year. But far more important is the fact that a good deal of biomedical research is double purpose: it may assist bioterrorism, but it can also help defend against it and serve the needs of civilian and military health. Craig Venter, the former president and spark plug of Celera Genomics, told a reporter, “Some people argue that publishing each genome is like publishing the blueprint to the atomic bomb. But it’s also the blueprint for a deterrent and the blueprint for a cure.” In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Ariella Rosengard, defending the publication of her paper on the smallpox protein, declared, “We need to galvanize the scientific community to develop safer vaccines and therapies, not make it so difficult that scientists say there are so many restrictions that I’m going to study something else. Because then the terrorists really do win.”

The dual use of biomedical research helped block a Bush administration proposal to move the bioterrorism work of the National Institutes of Health into the new U.S. Department of Homeland Security, though the two will collaborate to create a bioterrorism research agenda. But the publication issue still looms large. The American Society for Microbiology’s journal editors have sought to develop policies that would serve the purposes of both bioterrorism defense and the eradication of infectious diseases. The key policy, adopted in early 2002, was to vet papers for possible hazards-with the aim of raising any problems with their authors-before sending them out for review. Several authors decided on their own to withhold sections of papers for fear of revealing sensitive information to potential terrorists, appealing to the precedent set in 1940, when a number of nuclear physicists voluntarily established a system to suppress the publication of research on defense-related subjects such as uranium.

But the journal editors soon found themselves fielding complaints that the papers lacked adequate information for replication of the reported experiments. Atlas wanted to ensure completeness in scientific publication, but he understood the need to avoid publishing “cookbooks” for bioterrorism. Besides, he worried that the appearance of such recipes in the journals might provoke a government crackdown. Not sure how to proceed, Atlas prevailed on the National Academy of Sciences to call a meeting where biomedical scientists could discuss the issue with federal security experts.

The meeting, held at the academy on January 9, 2003, revealed, as the president’s science advisor John Marburger put it in prepared remarks, that past policies appropriate for security in nuclear physics “do not give adequate guidance for the technology of bioterrorism.” The proceedings were cosponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, DC, think tank, and they pitted scientists, who on the whole insisted on the freedom to publish-even articles like the mousepox, smallpox, and poliovirus papers-against federal security experts, who considered such research sensitive and its publication downright dangerous. George Poste, the chair of a Department of Defense task force on bioterrorism, insistently told the gathering, “I do not wish to see the coffins of my family, my children and grandchildren, created as a consequence of the utter navet, arrogance, and hubris of people who cannot see there is a problem.” Gerald Epstein, of the Institute for Defense Analyses, an Alexandria, VA, think tank, wondered how the scientists would like it if a sensitive article were “found in a cave in Afghanistan with sections highlighted in yellow.”

If some of the rhetoric sounded inflamed, both sides soberly recognized that the issue involved high stakes-both the nation’s security and the possibility of “blanket restrictions on science,” to quote John Hamre, a former deputy secretary of defense and now president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In a recent conversation, Hamre explained, “If the scientific community doesn’t take the lead in dealing with the reality of the bioterrorist threat, the security community will take over and do the job in ways that are likely to be wrong.” He added that “no group is better qualified than biologists to figure out what biomedical research might be dangerous to publish.” At the meeting itself, Marburger stressed that the government needed the help of biologists in identifying and censoring truly sensitive research results.

In a statement issued after the meeting that made clear their willingness to help, Atlas, Thomas Shenk (his successor-elect at the American Society for Microbiology), several other officers of scientific societies, and the editors of a dozen leading journals, including Science, Nature, and the New England Journal of Medicine, declared that scientific manuscripts must be published in “sufficient detail to permit reproducibility.” But they went on to say that editors must be watchful of information that might be dangerous in the wrong hands, and that papers likely to generate more harm than benefit should be changed or not published.

0 comments about this story. Start the discussion »

Tagged: Business

Reprints and Permissions | Send feedback to the editor

From the Archives

Close

Introducing MIT Technology Review Insider.

Already a Magazine subscriber?

You're automatically an Insider. It's easy to activate or upgrade your account.

Activate Your Account

Become an Insider

It's the new way to subscribe. Get even more of the tech news, research, and discoveries you crave.

Sign Up

Learn More

Find out why MIT Technology Review Insider is for you and explore your options.

Show Me