A Delicate Balance That Must Tip Toward Safety
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What was once the stuff of science fiction, the recipe for creating deadly viruses, is now a frighteningly real possibility. Prospects for harm are made all the more alarming by the availability of technology not only to scientists but also to anyone with access to the Internet.
The obvious solution seems to be restriction of access to information deemed potentially harmful. When scientific results provide insights that might arm people with destructive motives, what recourse do we have?
Science, however, succeeds as a result of shared information, openness, and mutual candor. To restrict that sharing could muzzle the critics most needed to dissect the work and build upon it to improve our world. What impact will it have on the research?
Those are difficult questions, and I am heartened that the scientific community has taken the lead in addressing them. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity is breaking new ground in recommending that scientific journals withhold details about experiments to create a more virulent strain of the H5N1 influenza (avian flu) virus.
Balancing public health and safety with the need for openness is a complex task. My colleagues and I in the scientific community have long asked for “high fences around narrow areas.” Here is our chance. This is a specific area of science where the risks may outweigh the benefits of open sharing of information. The specter of a highly contagious and deadly influenza is alarming indeed.
Science and the scientific method are founded on the ability to formulate and test hypotheses, and to have fellow scientists scrutinize and attempt to reproduce findings. Scientists thrive in a critical world of skeptical peers who continually punch holes in their work and drive them to improve it. Discoveries arise from scientists’ noticing new things in others’ work, and great ideas can come from nonexperts’ looking at a new result with a dubious eye.
In this case, the advisory board is providing exactly the service it was established to offer: advice, guidance, and leadership about oversight of biological research that could be misused to pose a threat to the public.
For its part, the scientific community must show that it can responsibly react to a thoughtful and carefully recommended decision from a panel of experts. Finding the right way to share information with reliable scientists who will build upon and test the results is crucial. The worst scenario is to not share research with those who can most effectively develop new treatments and interventions for a given illness, and yet inadvertently provide it to those who will use it for nefarious purposes. In that case, we end up disarming the wrong team.
But the process for preventing such a scenario is not perfect. The avian-flu research that the board found to be a potential threat has already been shared at a conference and through the review process. What’s more, the board’s recommendation, no matter how wise, is only advisory. So the next step for the board is to determine the best path forward.
One viable approach would be strengthening the institutional biosafety committees at universities, and ensuring that they have the necessary training to evaluate national-security issues. In fact, this was one of the recommendations made in a 2007 National Research Council report, written by a committee that I co-chaired.
In that report, “Science and Security in a Post 9/11 World,” we noted that in order to “strengthen and harmonize the institutional review of life-sciences research, the Department of Health and Human Services, in conjunction with other agencies that conduct and fund life-sciences research, should develop an education program on the basic principles of risk-based biosafety and biosecurity review.”
The need for such intensive institutional review, for the high fences, is imperative. We also need to have the right scientists inside the fences to advance this crucial, and frightening, research.