Turned up to eleven: Fair and Balanced

Tuesday, March 04, 2003

My first real post will be about the Op-Ed column in the LA Times today about Science muzzling itself (login: laexaminer password:laexaminer). It may surprise some readers to learn that I don't entirely disagree with this articles viewpoint. I do think it would be problematic if the government told scientific journals what to publish (that seems to me a pretty slippery slope!), but I think journal editors have a responsiblility to look out for the public interest. The example given was of an article that demonstrated how to increase the lethality of a biowarfare agent 100 fold (in the Op-Ed, he says "an agent able to kill 1 million instead of 10000", which is a more inflammatory way of saying the same thing). This seems to me a justifiable action, although I think it should be approached very cautiously. For example, the same article might contain methods of protecting against that agent, in which its publication might be warranted.

The problem, naturally, will occur in grey areas, and I suspect if this practice becomes widespread, could result in some serious legal wrangling. For example, I worked on toxins produced by Staphylococcus aureus when I was a graduate student. These toxins are in fact listed as potential bioweapons by CDC, although they are not commonly (publicly) thought of that way. Now, research into methods of producing large quantities of these toxins could be interpreted as valuable bioweapons research, but could also be seen as very important biotechnologically and for research purposes (such as for doing therapeutic studies, or studying protein structure). No, suppose a young researcher is trying to get tenure at a research university, and spends several years studying these toxins in this context. He (or she, of course) writes a number of papers suitable for publication in ASM journals (the standard in the field) and would be a shoe-in for tenure. But a vigilant (nee overzealous) editor decides that these are not suitable for publication in the current high risk environment, and rejects them. The scientist therefore gets denied tenure (for a poor publication record), and sues the ASM. I think this sort of thing is quite likely. The solution? A set of standards for publication of potentially weaponizable information, put together by a panel of experts in the field (non-political, to the extent that is possible), and distributed to researchers. I think this sort of thing is going on, but it has to be approached very diplomatically. Also, the federal granting agencies should be vigilant in funneling bioweapons research to the proper places (CDC, DARPA), so that it goes on in the proper context.

In general, I think this sort of thing can be handled appropriately, as long as it remains self-control rather than censorship. Of course, the government is restricted from interfering with publication of printed materials (its in that there Constitution, it is), but that has not stopped them from trying. As long as scientists are vigilant about maintaining appropriate standards, and keeping valuable, vital information flowing, it will be fine. In my chosen field, however, this may be difficult. Microbiologists often study mechanisms of bacterial and viral disease, much of which could be construed as bioweapons research by those outside the field. It is imperative that this research be as unrestricted as possible. I think that research into weaponized forms of virulent microbes should properly be curtailed, or access to the information restricted, but basic research into pathogens is very important for the advancement of medicine, agriculture, and microbiology in general.