SCIENCE & SOCIETY
January 9, 2003, has become a memorable date in the history of the National Academies and its commitment to advise the nation on science, engineering, and medicine. That day, National Academy of Sciences President Bruce Alberts welcomed an auditorium packed with scientists, national security officials, policy analysts, and journalists. The Academies, in partnership with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), hosted a daylong "town hall meeting" to search for answers to a series of complex, interconnected questions that -- post-Sept. 11 -- have haunted many researchers in the life sciences: Could the results of their work -- widely available in print and online in peer-reviewed journals -- be hijacked and turned against civilized society? If so, does the risk of terrorists appropriating certain kinds of "sensitive" information justify limiting or even prohibiting its publication? If publication were restricted, who would decide what should be published or not? How could the standards be more than just arbitrary? And, what exactly makes some information sensitive?
The tension at the meeting was palpable. John Hamre, president of CSIS and a former deputy secretary of defense, began by warning that officials charged with safeguarding national security and scientists approach the subject of terrorism with very different attitudes, goals, and knowledge bases. "The political climate we are in," Hamre explained, "is leaning toward the direction of imposing security regulations that buy precious little security but have terribly negative consequences for the conduct of science. The scientific community … tends to discount this as just 'the security guys are a bunch of dopes, and if only they'd be smarter they'd leave us alone.'"
Certain kinds of knowledge in the physical sciences -- the design of nuclear weapons, for example -- have long been considered too dangerous to make public. Since the beginning of the atomic age, physicists and governments have readily agreed that most research about nuclear technology needs to be classified and kept secret.
But application of this approach to the biological sciences is more problematic. The very same detailed knowledge that could be used to fight a disease or disable a plant or animal pathogen might, in the world after 9/11, also serve as a "cookbook" for terrorists wanting to create a powerful biological weapon. Although unclassified, might some information in the life sciences be too "sensitive" to be published in a journal or posted online? But, if it was not published, how could fellow scientists assess the latest data and build upon the findings of others? Scientists need to openly share their findings through scientific literature, so that results from one group can be challenged and extended by others, with each new advance being built upon the findings of others. That, in fact, is how science works best.
Several scientists said they had already come face to face with these dilemmas. Last year Ariella Rosengard, a University of Pennsylvania immunologist, published a paper which described how part of the smallpox virus functions. "As a mother of two wonderful children," she said, "I ask myself the following question: Could our work help to make the world they inherit more or less secure?" As a scientist, she expressed another worry: "... if we eliminate our ability to freely express our research results, we will end up saying it's not just worth it."
After the January meeting, editors and publishers of 32 of the world's leading scientific journals decided they had heard enough to begin taking action. "We recognize," they said in a joint statement published in February in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Nature, and Science, "that the prospect of bioterrorism has raised legitimate concerns about the potential abuse of published information, but [we] also recognize that research in the very same fields will be critical to society in meeting the challenges of defense." Based on what it had learned, the group agreed that "on occasions an editor may conclude that the potential harm of publication outweighs the potential societal benefits. Under such circumstances, the paper should be modified, or not be published."
Ronald Atlas, president of the American Society of Microbiology, called this new scientific publishers' policy a work in progress that should "begin by defining what is sensitive and then move to considering how best to protect that information, going beyond classification to ethically responsible citizenship."
January's meeting was only the beginning of dialogue-building between scientists and the national security community. This spring, the National Academies and CSIS are taking the next step, jointly underwriting a series of roundtable meetings about the complex issues at the intersection of the life sciences and national security. The roundtable, whose members include leading scientists and former government leaders, will hear concerns from both communities in an effort to solve problems in real time and build consensus, as well as trust. This joint initiative will be co-chaired by David Baltimore, president of the California Institute of Technology, and Harold Brown, former secretary of defense under President Carter.
-- William Skane