Censoring the Scientific Process: How much should we let fear get in the way of progress?

There’s an interesting debate going on in the scientific community right now concerning the dissemination of information. Ironically, the debate is about how much information we can trust people with, and is largely being ignored or misrepresented by the general public media.

The foundation of the academic process is the full-disclosure of research findings and analysis by peer-review. As I have talked about before, the ultimate validation of scientific discovery is the ability to replicate the experimental results. The greater number of times that an observation can be replicated, by many different people, under different experimental setups, the stronger our confidence that we’re not just deluding ourselves. This is why we feel fairly confident in things like gravity. As for astrology? Not so much.

Late last year, two groups independently submitted for publication, papers of their findings to the journals of Science and Nature. (These journals are the very top of the scientific community. Think the Wayne Gretzky of scientific journals.) Their work describes laboratory-modified H5N1 viruses that are capable of respiratory transmission (e.g. sneezing or coughing) between ferrets, and suggests that with relatively few genetic changes to the virus, N5N1 could potentially become transmissible from person to person.

Having reviewed the papers, the editors flagged the works as “potentially dual use research of concern”. Which apparently happens often enough that they have an acronym for it (DURC). The papers were then sent to the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (which also has an acronym, NSABB), who recommended that they alter the manuscripts so that key findings be excluded because they’re worried that the information is too dangerous for public knowledge. In doing so, the NSABB thinks that it’s doing the best for the human race at large, since they think these findings are akin to the plague or Spanish flu (at least that’s how they spun it when they published a statement, defending their stance).

The NSABB: protecting us from the Dr. Strangelove's of the world.

But, the information is already “out there”. Even though it’s not published per se. And what’s silly is the NSABB thinks that censoring journals is the way to prevent a plague of avian flu. If terrorists wanted a bioweapon, do you think their first stop is to go to the primary literature and try and replicate a ferret flu? Well, someone at the NSABB thinks so, apparently. Personally I’d think they’d be much easier ways to go about it. I suppose we should be grateful that I only use my powers of science for good.

However, by censoring scientific publications, you may well end up crippling the ability of scientists to develop novel vaccines and treatments for avian flu. More importantly, the very foundation by which we conduct science, full disclosure of methods and validation through replication of results, is under threat.

The World Health Organization (WHO) had a meeting to discuss the dilemma, and came to the conclusion that the research should be published.

“It was noted that the research methods used in these studies are not novel and are widely used in biomedical research… Further, it would not be difficult for knowledgeable scientists to determine the information that had been removed, as novel methods had not been used.”

My point exactly. So stop trying to destroy the backbone of science, NSABB, unless you think you have a better method. I’d be willing to test it out for you, but you’d have to tell me what it is first.


For those who are interested in some further reading/watching (and to cite my sources):

The NSABB’s stance. http://www.nih.gov/news/health/dec2011/od-20.htm

The WHO’s stance. http://www.who.int/influenza/human_animal_interface/en/index.html

The discussion panel at the ASM Biodefense and Emerging Diseases Research Meeting. http://www.asmbiodefense.org/index.php/program-information/nsabbs-recommendations-for-h5n1-research

Nature’s stance. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v482/n7386/full/482439a.html

Science reports on the debate. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/335/6073/1155.full?sid=e08ef83f-db1a-4df1-b9e5-2c4d4d88063f

(And no, I’m not going to link to any of the “doomsday virus” articles in the mass media.)

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