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Science, Good and Evil

May 1, 2012

Rheanna Sand

Should potentially dangerous science be muzzled? This was a question brought to the forefront of the scientific community late last year when two separate groups of researchers figured out a relatively easy way to make the H5N1 bird flu virus more transmittable between mammals. The fact that bird flu viruses don't transmit from mammal to mammal keeps this deadly strain from being the cause of a global, potentially devastating outbreak. So, naturally, these studies caused a collective freak-out from the general public.


Wikimedia Commons/Wapcaplet

 

In December 2011, the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NAMBLA) put a moratorium on the publication of these two studies, for fear that in the wrong hands, such information could be used for serious harm. But in late March 2012, the Board reversed their decision, recommending full publication of one and partial publication of the second paper. If you think this is crazy, consider the fact that the World Health Organization recommended full publication of both studies.

Why the lax attitude? Well, for one, the information at the heart of the findings was already in the public domain. Secondly, new guidelines have been put into effect that puts such "dual-use" research under increased scrutiny by federal agencies, who can choose to classify the results or withdraw funding if it steps over the line.

And besides, as this Nature article points out, there are already numerous examples of science that can be misused. New, laser-based methods to enrich and separate radioactive isotopes, for instance, are important for medical research but could also be used by aspiring nuclear states to create weapons. Brain scanning technology reveals the secrets inside our head, for better or worse. Geoengineering could help stop the greenhouse effect, but might also bring on unintended worldwide catastrophe. Prenatal genetic testing can alert parents to potential problems in the unborn child, but could also lead to unethical genetic selection.

Every advance the human species makes has the potential for misuse… just ask Albert Einstein. Ultimately we need adequate regulation, monitoring and enforcement policies to minimize the chance that we bring ourselves to Armageddon.

YOUR COMMENTS

Chris Buzon on May 01, 2012
Censorship is bad - especially in an academic setting. I agree, I can already get very dangerous info easily - having access to very dangerous info that needs potentially years of work, millions/billions of dollars in funding, AND the will to hurt others....? Anyone capable of actually making good on threats is already in a position to do incredible damage - this changes very little.
Ryan Shannon on May 01, 2012
While I'm inclined to agree with the variety of experts, I also worry from another perspective. It's a relatively straightforward affair to buy and operate the equipment required for molecular biology manipulation if you have the funds. Nation-states as a rule don't scare me nearly as much as highly-organized, distributed-structure, moderately-educated organizations that promote political violence. Forget post-2001 image of "terrorists" and consider some of the organizations unaffiliated with nation-states that have operated between the 1950s and now. I'm not sure I'm comfortable with people like that being able to get their hands on research that effectively allows them to create a pandemic bio-weapon.

So while I see their (and Chris') point, the risk of use of biology to produce weapons with a massive effect on distributed populations is a particularly frightening one as it is relatively easy, relatively cheap, and require very little technical knowledge compared to some of the cited alternatives. It's a lot harder to assemble and deploy a dirty bomb in a populated area than produce and disperse a particularly virulent airborne bioweapon somewhere like a major international airport. Our security forces are geared to detect and intercept the former; I'm not so sure about the latter.
Rheanna Sand on May 02, 2012
You know, Ryan, after writing this blog I was firmly on the side of no censorship. I still take that stance, generally speaking. But I have to admit, with the first of the two papers being published today in Nature, I can't help but feel a tad nervous. Like we might look back on this day from some dystopic point in the future as The Day Nature Doomed Us All.

Here's hoping that molecular biology isn't as easy as you suggest it is - which also feeds my ego, as one who failed to make two simple plasmid constructs this week. ;)

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