Turned up to eleven: Fair and Balanced

Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Final microbiology note. I noted in a post from the distant past that the Gov't had asked ASM to censor itself with respect to methods for producing potential bioweapons, and that I thought this was an extremely objectionable policy, and incredibly short-sighted. The current president of ASM, Abigail Salyers, has published an open letter to ASM members, denying this. I quote the letter in full, below (I won't quote the letter she sent to the NY Times, because it is redundant;

Previously, I informed you via e-mail of the FBI's requesting ASM's help in its investigation of last fall's anthrax attacks. As you are no doubt aware, these incidents of bioterrorism have raised the specter of censoring scientific publications that may contain information construed to be potentially helpful to bioterrorists. The Sunday New York Times on 17 February 2002 ran an article entitled "U.S. Is Tightening Rules on Keeping Scientific Secrets." This article incorrectly stated that "The White House has asked the ASM . . . to limit potentially dangerous information in the 11 journals it publishes. . . . One White House proposal is to eliminate the sections of articles that give experimental details researchers from other laboratories would need to replicate the claimed results, helping to prove their validity."

The article then published quotations from ASM President-elect Ronald Atlas and myself that, in context, could be construed as commenting on the ostensible White House request.

I want to emphasize in the strongest possible terms that ASM has not received any such request from the White House, nor has it been asked to censor any of its publications for reasons of national security or otherwise. Unfortunately, the misinformation from the Times article keeps getting repeated on other publications. We have spoken directly with the writer to clarify the issue and have written a letter to the New York Times refuting these statements (see below). ASM remains committed to its position that the free and open exchange of scientific information is in the best interests of both the scientific enterprise and the public health.

I am obviously glad to hear that ASM is not interested in pursuing such a course, but I am a bit suspicious of the denial, which doesn't really address White House internal discussions, only what ASM was ever asked to do. I hope that the publishers of the major scientific journals understand the risks involved in even entertaining the notion of voluntary censorship of scientific publications (especially the experimental methods section!) to the enterprise of academic science itself. Anyway, this is just an FYI, and it may relieve some fears about the encroaching police state.