Should Science be Censored?

Woodcut by Albrecht Durer

Few issues are more likely to raise gooseflesh than censorship—a concern shared by scientists and journalists alike.

But when is it appropriate to withhold information? Who gets to decide what information is sequestered and from whom?

A recent struggle has embroiled scientists and journalists in the thorny discussion of censorship.

The prestigious journal Science announced recently that an arm of the federal government—the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity—asked the journal and a study’s authors to censor details for fear that bioterrorists could use it to create a pandemic.

The worry is this: by disclosing full details of research conducted on the avian flu, terrorists might create a mutant bug that could indiscriminately kill humans.

Researchers have been able to change the properties of a particularly nasty type of flu known as H5N1. Until recently the bug was poorly transmitted among humans: only about 600 people had been affected by the strain since 1997. But the bug is deadly, claiming the lives of about half it infects.

A new version of the virus now has the potential to be more easily passed, at least in lab animals and perhaps between humans.

Researchers who conducted the experiments were poised to publish their results in Science, and the editors were asked to withhold some details. A similar study—also of the flu virus but conducted by a different research team–is being considered for the journal Nature, and the editors and authors were asked to withhold certain information from readers by the biosecurity board.

Scientists argue that the new “airborne” strain can help them jump one step ahead of the virus by developing drugs and other defenses to stave off the life-threatening effects of H5N1. But publishing their findings could also provide ammunition to someone interested in creating an avian flu disaster that could have potentially devastating effects on animals and people.

The editor-in-chief of Science, Bruce Alberts, said in a December 20 news release he supports “open publication” that benefits public health. At issue is whether (and when) the benefits of sharing scientific information outweigh the risks.

Alberts said the journal would agree to withhold information if the U.S. government establishes a “written, transparent plan to ensure that any information that is omitted from the publication will be provided to all those responsible scientists who request it, as part of their legitimate efforts to improve public health and safety.”

No specific details on what will constitute a “transparent plan” were available in the latest issue (Jan. 6) of Science, and the details of the study have not yet been published.

My question is: who will determine what constitutes transparency and decides who is responsible for making life-and-death decisions?

The proposal to manage such information creates a bubble of decision-makers from the scientific and political communities. But scientists (and policy makers) are subject to the same foibles as the rest of us, and I daresay the question of censorship brings to the surface questions of trust. Are you more likely to trust a medical researcher than, say, your local Congresswoman?

Decision-making of this sort requires more than the provenance of experts in virology and diplomacy: this is a question of ethics. Making judgments about risks and benefits of conducting such experiments in the first place—not just questions about sharing the how-to’s of scientific methods—is best shared by a plurality of concerned citizens.

It’s hard to anticipate all the outcomes and ramifications of research that impacts the human race on a truly global scale, and thus the issue of how to manage information about the H5N1 flu is a sticky one.

But it makes sense to enlarge the circle of decision-makers beyond scientists and politicians when it comes to figuring out when information should be censored and who gets to make those decisions.

Note: This appeared in the January 12 issue of The Oregonian


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in censorship, ethics, risk, science, science communication. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Should Science be Censored?

  1. I thought the scientific society had already learnt this lesson. One of the main reasons science can advance so rapidly is its open source nature. The appearance of the journal, and the idea of constantly sharing each others research was a huge help in advancing our own knowledge.

    As an example the patents war (over telegraph techniques and wireless communication) at the turn of the 20th century, where people were extremely secretive about their own projects in case someone was to patent it before them, acted only as a block to scientific advancement. Even if it made a few people rich..

    In the most modern of terms, the lack of proper explanation or education is partly what has led to such violent protests against GM crops, possibly even global warming sceptics.

    Science is meant to be a pool of knowledge open to everyone. That’s already hindered by the crippling prices that journals set for access outside of academia. You can’t regulate journals without making the matter worse.

    So what if a few bioterrorists got hold of this knowledge? The majority of people aren’t bioterrorists, and as soon as this research is out other scientists will be finding a solution to counteract its results. If these scientists never read the paper and some bioterrorists still get hold of it (as they will possibly be looking for it more than others) we will have no idea how it works or what to do against it.

    IMO: Science should never be censored.


  2. Kevin says:

    Theoretical principles must be balanced with real-world considerations. “So what if a few bioterrorists got hold of this knowledge?” The result could be catastrophic, much like the introduction of smallpox into the Americas, which killed millions of indigenous people. It would be much more accurate to say that after the publication of such research, “other scientists will be WORKING TO FIND a solution to counteract its results.” However, until and unless such a solution is found, the potential threat is very real. There is a crucial distinction between opposing the freedom of scientific inquiry and opposing the unlimited dissimination of all resulting knowledge. Scientific knowledge should never be censored? If not, the blueprints for nuclear and biological weapons would be openly available on the internet, which I don’t think would be very wise.


  3. I really didn’t put myself forward very well there.

    Work done on a military basis will always be done in secret. That’s how the world is and in my opinion it is for the most part non-beneficial for the world at large to even have such research. But I won’t interrupt it or complain. That bit can be censored, fine.

    Stuff that works its way into peer-reviewed journals should not. If it is dangerous to public safety, it probably shouldn’t be accepted into the journal (my opinion). Otherwise science needs to be/ open access to allow people to trust it and understand it better.

    In response to the building nuclear weapons:


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