When I quizzed people involved with national security, they warned me off publishing. Our story might give our enemies ideas, they said. If we had no recommendations for improving public safety, we had better kill the piece.
These arguments have weight. Therefore, why publish? We had encouragement. Distinguished scientists who are familiar with bioweapons, including George Poste, the former chief scientist at SmithKline Beecham and the sometime chairman of a task force on bioterrorism at the U.S. Defense Department, were supportive. The scientists confirmed that the advance of biological knowledge offered malefactors new categories of weapons with new opportunities for violence and coercion. As Poste told me, “Biology is losing its innocence. For a long time, biology was irrelevant to national security. But that’s changing. The biological revolution means a determined actor can undoubtedly build a biological weapon.” Additionally, in February a long report by the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council of the National Academies entitled “Globalization, Biosecurity, and the Future of the Life Sciences” provided us moral support. It replicated much of our reporting and conclusions, and while we were sorry to be scooped, we were relieved to be in such respectable company.
Nevertheless, we took a number of precautions. We were careful to occlude any recipes for bioweapons. What detail we do provide is based on published research and has been widely discussed. Finally, in the interests of balance, we asked Allison Macfarlane, a senior research associate in the Technology Group of MIT’s Security Studies Program, to rebut our argument (see “Assessing the Threat”).
Yet, in the end, we published the story because we believed it was important. Modern biotechnology is potentially a threat to our welfare, but the life sciences will continue to advance. Thus, our best hope of countering the threat is to invest in research that will suggest a technological solution. But as Serguei Popov himself told us, “First we have to be aware.” Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.