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Scientists, Listen to the Snoops!

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SENSE/ANTISENSE
Life Sciences Policies and Regs

Scientists, Listen to the Snoops!

The alternative could be a gag order

 

By John S. MacNeil

 

To scientists, there are few more fundamental principles than the ability to openly share information — across borders, oceans, even language barriers. It’s no surprise, then, that researchers are watching closely to see how, in the wake of the anthrax terror attacks of 2001, the federal government moves to exert greater control over the dissemination of biological data and know-how useful for designing another attack.

Already, scientists have had to act more vigilantly to document potentially dangerous organisms and reagents. Now, the National Research Council has published a report with recommendations for how scientists should regulate themselves to prevent the unnecessary release of information that could help criminals develop more sophisticated biological terror agents.

An NRC committee recommends that scientists need to be educated about how their research could be used nefariously; that a review system should examine projects that involve “experiments of concern” to determine their potential for misuse; that scientific journals must police themselves to avoid publishing information that would pose a security risk; and that the government should create a National Science Advisory Board for Biodefense to provide guidelines for identifying and monitoring sensitive biological information.

The devil, as they say, is in the details. The NRC committee has defined seven classes of experiments that would qualify as experiments of concern, but are those classifications too broad? Too narrow? How will scientific journals arrive at a consensus for how to determine whether a paper poses a security risk? What’s to prevent another journal from taking a more liberal approach and publishing the paper when its competitors decline to do so? Perhaps most importantly, how will the advisory board gain credibility in the eyes of law enforcement and security agencies?

TIGR President Claire Fraser, who happens to be a member of another NRC committee, Genomics Databases for Bioterrorism Threat Agents, which will publish its own report early next year, told a Department of Energy-sponsored microbial genomics meeting in October that she feels scientists need to do more to demonstrate their cognizance of how certain aspects of their work can be criminally exploited. Otherwise, she said, the federal government, at the urging of the more professionally paranoid security agencies such as the CIA, will enact legislation that goes too far toward muzzling the free interchange of data.

But heading this off will require more than just public statements by scientists acknowledging the security risk that the easy availability of certain data carries. Ultimately, for the “self-governance” approach to work, the NRC committee will have to pay more than lip service to minimizing such threats. Avoiding unduly restrictive top-down directives will require admitting representatives from the FBI and CIA into the discussion on many levels — particularly (and perhaps most preferably, from a researcher’s perspective) in how the advisory board defines its guidelines.

Placating the law enforcement and security agencies will not be easy, nor is taking a proactive approach to accommodating their concerns guaranteed to stave off rules stifling science. In fact, in an interview with The New York Times, John Marburger, President Bush’s science advisor, said of the NRC committee’s report, “It isn’t as if this is a magic bullet that will bring an end to all discussion of the issue.” More specifically, he added that the seven classes of experiments of concern needed more discussion.

For the research community to get away with censoring itself, the NRC committee members and other prominent scientists will have to convince Marburger and his staff that FBI and CIA officials will have their voices heard. In its recommendations, the NRC committee said the advisory board should include national security experts, but if and when that does come into existence, its scientist members should be prepared to compromise. The alternative could be a Bush administration muzzle.

John S. MacNeil, a senior editor at Genome Technology, can be reached at [email protected] web.com. His Sense/ Antisense column, which covers government research policy and regulatory issues, appears bi-monthly.

 

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