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 The as-yet unpublished papers, which are under review at Nature and Science, will be changed to minimize the risks that they could be misused by would-be bioterrorists.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The science advisory board to HHS recommended that the papers not be published in full, and the agency that it advises concurred.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.