When censoring science makes sense

Hong Kong culled over17,000 chickens and suspended live poultry imports for 21 days after detecting the H5N1 virus.

Story highlights

  • For first time, a federal panel has advised that science journals censor flu study facts
  • The papers describe how to alter bird-flu virus to be more potent, says Arthur Caplan
  • Scientists generally hate policies that restrict research in any way, Caplan says
  • Caplan: Sometimes risk is too high to let scientists openly disclose their findings
On Tuesday, a federal advisory panel, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, recommended that university scientists who have submitted articles on how to modify a flu virus to two very prestigious journals delete critical information from them before publishing. The papers describe how to alter bird-flu virus to be more infectious and potentially nastier.
Yes, this is same bird flu virus that, as it moved into pigs, was freaking us all out last year. If you had the detailed map of the viral changes needed, then either a terrorist or an amateur "garage" biologist operating without the right safeguards would have a very effective critter for killing you and me.
If there is one thing that scientists hate, it is any policy that restricts research in any way. Scientists are taught that they need to be bold in asking questions and not let anything deter them from following their thinking wherever it leads, no matter how unpopular that might be. They are also taught the absolute necessity of making their claims public in reputable journals so that other scientists can subject them to the critical skepticism from which the truth ultimately emerges.
Once in a long while, however, the price of the truth is simply too high to let scientists disclose their findings publicly. That is so when it comes to publishing detailed information about dangerous viruses and microbes.
We don't have to hide the genetic map for a killer avian flu virus from all eyes. Access to some who have clearance to see it should be possible. If that is done, then the truth will still be known about whether those making claims of being able to engineer the virus can actually do so.
To go further with potentially catastrophic data is to court trouble.
There are those who will say that the only way to fight terror is to adhere to those values that have proven crucial to the advance of science over the decades. The more we know, the worse for the terrorists.
Unfortunately, that is no longer the world we live in. The ethics of inquiry need to adapt. Handing the complete formula for making a nasty pandemic bug to any nut with access to the Internet or a subscription to a scientific journal makes no sense in a world that has seen the use of anthrax and sarin as weapons of terror.
Freedom is key to good science. Freedom from terror is also key to good science. When they conflict, the latter is more important freedom than the former. Journals and those who write for them ought to do all they can to try and ensure that most important freedom.