PRESS RELEASE: 4-30-2013 The Ethics of Knowledge: When Should Hazardous Scientific Information be Made Public?

Experts debate options for conducting and publishing research that poses risk of bioterrorism.
(Garrison, NY) How can we best address the potential threat posed by “dual use” research – scientific findings that can be used for good or evil? An article and two commentaries in the Hastings Center Report examine this question in relation to the controversial decision to allow full publication last year of two papers on genetically engineered strains of the H5N1 avian influenza virus. Although these papers have potential scientific and social value, some scientists and policy-makers opposed their publication because of fear that the research could be used to create a bioweapon and trigger a global pandemic.

The experiments demonstrated that genetically engineered strains of the H5N1 avian influenza virus can acquire mutations that enable them to be transmitted through the air between mammals, potentially increasing the risk of deadly infection to humans. Despite the risks, the decision by a federal advisory committee to allow full publication of the H5N1 research papers was reasonable and appropriate, argues David B. Resnik, a bioethicist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Health (NIH), in the leadHastings Center Reportarticle.

“The H5N1 papers raise difficult questions concerning the ethics of knowledge,” writes Resnik. “Should scientific research with dangerous applications be published? Should some types of research be kept secret or not be conducted at all? What type of government oversight of dangerous research is appropriate?”

The National Institutes of Health, which funded the H5N1 research, asked for a review of the disputed papers by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, a federal advisory committee chartered to give advice on biosecurity oversight of dual use research. The question was whether to allow publication in full, in a redacted or censored form, or not at all.

Resnik argues that the strongest reason for government intervention to restrict full publication is the prevention of harm to individuals or society. However, it is nearly impossible to determine the likelihood or extent of harm being done by the avian flu papers, Resnik concludes. Given that uncertainty, he reasoned, the NCABB would not have been justified in recommending a ban on publication; instead, it could either have recommended publishing the papers in redacted form – with the full recipe for making a bioweapon removed – or publishing them in their entirety.

He concluded that full publication was preferable because redacted publication had many legal and practical problems, and it might not even reduce the threat of bioterrorism, since research funded by the government may still be available through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Still, recognizing that full publication does nothing to address potential harms resulting from research that poses biosecurity risks, Resnik calls for an international effort by governmental agencies, journal editors, and scientists to find ways to make redacted publication a viable option. For example, he suggests that researchers, when submitting their papers for publication, could inform the journal editors of the security concerns raised by their work, letting the editors decide how to handle their submissions.

Two commentaries respond to Resnik’s position and reasoning. In the first commentary, David Relman, a member of the NSABB who voted against full publication, argues that the benefits of the research would be only modest, the risks potentially grave, and the means for mitigating these risks inadequate. But, in addition to questions surrounding publication, he calls for greater attention to the conceptualization of experiments. “Rather than ask whether the work is ‘worthy of support,’ we should ask whether it should be undertaken,” he writes.

The second commentary, by Gaymon Bennett, a research fellow at the Center for Biological Futures, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, expands upon Resnik’s assessment and argues for a mechanism for redacted publication. He says that the steep challenge of balancing possible harms and ben­efits does not lie with calculating probabilities because, as he notes, it is impossible to calculate the odds of an event that has never happened before — in this case, the deliberate or accidental release of engineered H5N1. “The challenge, rather, lies in developing alternative modes of reasoning about future dangers and future goods,” he writes.

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