Censorship of science: security at what price?
There’s been a lot of debate about the recent announcement that the U.S. government advisory boards asked Science and Nature to censor information about the alteration of a bird flu virus.
The virus in question, subtype A H5N1 caused a scare in mid 2000s because of its high human fatality rate (60%). Remember when people feared bird flu would kill millions? ABC even aired a mediocre movie about what might happen in a worldwide flu epidemic.The virus’ damage was limited in that it could not be transmitted from one human to another; the few hundred affected individuals contracted the virus from birds. Researchers at University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Erasmus Institute in the Netherlands created a strain of H5N1 that was easily transmissible-and fatal-among ferrets. The US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity recommended the methods sections of the papers be withheld to prevent use of this information in bioterrorism.
I understand the rationale for not wanting this information to fall into the wrong hands, but I don’t like the idea of censoring research. I really don’t. I worry about sacrificing liberties in the name of national security. There’s been a lot of criticism of the board’s decision, arguing that censorship of research is not in the spirit of scientific inquiry. The board has stated they will make the methods available on a need to know basis. How they determine need to know, and how long will the process take? We don’t know. Also, the board’s recommendation can’t prevent the methods from being published in other ways. The reseachers could easily publish their technique in a European journal.
I also find it ironic that the news about the papers being censored brought a lot more attention to the story than if the paper had been quietly published. Perhaps the board’s decision will have the opposite of its intended effect!
Those are just my thoughts. More later if there are further developments.