Glossing the policy for me, Atlas said he considered it “a call for integrating ethics” into the criteria for scientific publication, a modification of peer review standards to “take into account protecting the public” as well as the quality of the research. He stressed that the refereeing process is “out of government control and hence not a system for censorship. In the end it will be up to the public to see if that is adequate.” A few weeks after the statement was issued, Bruce Alberts, the president of the National Academy of Sciences, remarked to the Washington Post that the biomedical community was “on the right track” with the problem of biosecurity. “We need to be on the same team with the security folks instead of in opposition.”
Cooperation, though, runs the risk of co-optation. Early Cold War scientists, eager to protect national security and their influence in federal policymaking, often wound up supporting the government’s curtailment of their colleagues’ civil liberties. And in any event, the earnest tightrope-walking of U.S. journal editors may well be beside the point. Unlike early Cold War nuclear physics, which was confined to a handful of countries, contemporary biology is a global enterprise. In an unsigned editorial, The Lancet Infectious Diseases noted, “No government will really ever be able to control the flow of scientific information. There are 5,000 or more journals in the world, and the Internet is available to anyone who wants to use it.” And locking up lethal biological agents is perhaps as difficult as locking up information about those agents. In the early Cold War, controlling uranium and plutonium was much easier. Raw uranium ore was hard to obtain, and turning it into fissionable fuel involved large, costly processing plants and reactors. But the agents of bioterrorism require comparatively small-scale production plants. Moreover, they are ubiquitous in their natural forms, and new forms-not to mention old ones like the poliovirus-whose DNA sequences are readily available on the Internet can be manufactured using automated tabletop technologies. As Gigi Kwik, a fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies, noted, “You can now finish before lunch projects that used to consume a PhD thesis.”
There thus seems little to prevent determined terrorists from obtaining or engineering lethal agents that fall under security restrictions-or from devising new ones. Similarly, keeping foreign doctoral students out of American universities won’t necessarily do much to prevent would-be terrorists from acquiring useful technical skills. Universities in Europe and Asia are producing a growing number of science and engineering doctorates and are responsible for half the world’s biomedical research. Bruce Alberts told me recently, “None of these efforts to control the weapons of bioterrorism will work without international cooperation. It’s really imperative, given how much biology is done outside the United States.”
As TR went to press, the federal government had not restricted publication of sensitive basic research, but a chill has already fallen over biomedical science. Evident in the constricted flow of foreign students and visitors, as well as in the impairment of some research programs, it is provoking apprehensions that biomedical research and biotechnology could be weakened by the drive for secrecy and security-and weakened without significantly, if at all, limiting the capacities for bioterrorism.
To read about the effect of anti-terrorism measures on international students at MIT, read Is MIT a Security Risk?