HomeFeaturesDailyBriefingsRapidReconSpecial ReportsAbout Us

Scientific Dilemma – Security versus Publication

A few weeks ago I offered a rather lengthy backgrounder on the subject of balancing the academic and researcher urge to publish and seek peer review of work, and the potential national security implications of publishing those results. In many ways, this is also related to the problem of the sale or theft of intellectual property as a number of entries here at ThreatsWatch have recently discussed.

Today we find ourselves on a precipice of discovery. On the one hand, our Nation’s scientists and researchers attack the many challenges of a World that is moving at Internet speed. But it is that speed that also creates the scientific dilemma. September 11th changed more than just our lives. It changed more than just the question of security, because it also changed the importance of judging how and when sensitive (but not secret) information should be shared.

The issue is no longer the simplistic “publish or perish.” Dealing with scientific discoveries and advancements at a time when the free flow of information and access to reports, even perhaps the reports contained in the previous entry on this topic, Science, Technology and the “Age of Terrorism” are open to almost anyone with a computer and an Internet connection. This fact could well be problematic.

Allowing sensitive information on new discoveries to travel free around the World in a matter of seconds leads to the very real question of National security, and raises the parallel question of freedom of speech (or at least issues of extreme censorship). I first became intimately aware of this problem as I was preparing for a presentation on Bioterrorism and Homeland Security that I delivered in May 2004 on Long Island. What struck me then was the discussion of the work of Dr. Mark Buller and his associates. They had created a highly lethal virus in an effort to develop stronger protections against supervirulent forms of smallpox that terrorists might turn on humans

Back then the question was whether the benefits of doing the research, especially when it came to new and particularly virulent bio-terror agents, was prudent, and whether the publication of the results outweighed the potential for educated terrorists having the information and potentially being able to duplicate it.

This type of research has been debated for years, with critics arguing again yesterday that superviruses created in laboratories could inspire terrorists to create their own deadly diseases. The mousepox scientists countered that the research could help deter terrorism by demonstrating the emergence of more potent medical defenses.

The mousepox research was done at St. Louis University as a project financed by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases meant to find new protections against smallpox, which kills one in three victims.

The leaders of the research said that the lethal mouse virus would have no effect on humans even if it somehow escaped from the laboratory, which they said was safeguarded at biosafety level three, the second-highest degree of security.

"To my knowledge, there's no scientific evidence to suggest that this kind of research poses any sort of human health risk," said Mark Buller, a professor of molecular microbiology at St. Louis University who directed the mousepox research. Many experiments have shown that mousepox does not cause disease in humans, he said.

We are seeing clearly that the limits of science are boundless. We know that these advances must continue to enable us to be prepared to counter the “whatevers” that can (might) occur. What are the limits of science? Where is the line between seeking peer accolades and recognition and crossing a line of discretion, over which we allow access to critical information and scientific advancements that could harm us if used against us?

An earlier publication from the Central Intelligence Agency, The Darker Bioweapons Future draws the picture of what “could be”:

According to experts, the biotechnology underlying the development of advanced biological agents is likely to advance very rapidly, causing a diverse and elusive threat spectrum. The resulting diversity of new BW agents could enable such a broad range of attack scenarios that it would be virtually impossible to anticipate and defend against, they say. As a result, there could be a considerable lag time in developing effective biodefense measures. However, effective countermeasures, once developed, could be leveraged against a range of BW agents, asserted attendees, citing current research aimed at developing protocols for augmenting common elements of the body’s response to disease, rather than treating individual diseases. Such treatments could strengthen our defense against attacks by ABW agents.

An article in the November 28, 2007 Journal of American Medical Association commented about the increased concerns about the threats of bioterror attacks outbreaks of an infectious disease. It is a simple and undeniable fact. Our enemy in this Global War on Terrorism is educated and determined, and they have already made it clear that they will use all means of weapon against us. Therefore, things like scientific literature, technology transfer efforts, academic conferences and patents become the source for potential use. The potential lethality of some of the scientific and biotechnological developments, if they fell into the wrong hands, is beyond comprehension. However, the counter argument is that in parallel with the development of these agents, also comes the development of vaccines to deal with them.

It cannot be the most popular position with the scientific community, but I believe that discretion is warranted when it comes to publishing scientific results. If it isn’t already policy, I believe that National Security must be superior to scientific accolades, and therefore, a filtering process needs to be established. Is that censorship? Perhaps it is censorship. But the net effect of that censorship (if that is what it is), is a probably increase in security along with a decrease in academic/research accolades.

Notes

2 Comments

Your notion to censor “sensitive” scientific publications will worsen the problem towards bioterrorism, not solve it.

The simple and undeniable fact is that the information to create bioweapons is already in the public domain. Most scientists with molecular biology expertise (being terrorists or non-terrorists) have the current knowledge to create genetically engineered (GE) microbes or viruses that can cause harm to the public health. And they do not need contagious EBOLA or smallpox virus or any other known virulent microbe to do it. The ability to create infectious GE microbes is known throughout the international community. It is so feasible in fact that it has stimulated a market to develop international laboratories to create “disease state models” using GE viruses for drug discovery processes and bioweapons “defense”.

Limiting the information on biological advancements, therefore, will only create a heighten state of non-cooperation within the scientific community both domestically and internationally. The solution lies not in limiting access to information but in how to create a scientific community that is responsible and “on guard” in detecting safety violations, unauthorized use or suspicious behavior.

Let’s look at home first. In the United States there are no adequate regulations or oversight on any private industry developing GE viruses or microbes. Most worrisome is that scientists working on these dangerous technologies have no rights to a safety forum to address their safety concerns. Biotech workers raising safety issues can be and have been terminated without any recourse. In addition, scientists within the biotech industry have no rights to the appropriate “exposure” records to obtain adequate healthcare causing the misperception that these technologies are safe. As one may surmise with this information, the immediate threat with “advanced biological technologies” doesn’t lie with the terrorists, but lies within our own regulatory climate within our own country with the inability to protect the public against an accidental, negligent or intentional release.

Here in the U.S., we need immediate regulatory changes to enhance the safe use of these dangerous technologies before it is too late. But regulatory changes that promote censorship and limit scientific exchange on biological advancements will only heighten the problem regarding the unsafe use, unauthorized use or misuse of GE technologies. In order to protect the public against acts of negligence and acts of terrorism we need to first promote safety, worker’s rights and endorse appropriate regulatory oversight which enhances communication within the scientific community regarding these dangerous GE technologies, not limits it. Because these bioweapon technologies are already internationally well known, it is imperative to create an international consortium. But first let’s get it right here in the U.S.

Actually, and to be clear, I believe that I suggested a process of filtering, and then asked the rhetorical question of whether that would constitute censorship.

If we use the word filtering, that is intended to mean that a body such as the National Academy of Sciences (or similar entity) might read papers before publication for National Security sensitive information. I believe that this was a proposal that NAS made after the Buller mouse pox disclosure was made (I didn't think it up myself). At that time the White House commented that federally funded R&D shouldn't be filtered.

There are so many issues relating to sensitive research, especially in the bio area. But it also important to note that while alot of the information is already public, one of the questions is whether knowledge of the countermeasures should be public information. Now, if we want to get into a truly controversial area, we could talk about the new National Bio Agro Defense Lab.