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 http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2012/01/should_science_be_censored.html