Once upon a time…
There were two studies, one performed in the Netherlands, one in Japan, that showed how the avian flu virus could become more dangerous for human beings. Normally, the avian flu (or H5N1) is very inefficient in spreading from one person to another. Two studies, however, experimentally adapted the virus so that it could spread between humans more efficiently.
Debate ensued. After all, wasn’t this information too dangerous to be published? The potential of a biosecurity threat reared its head.
What was to be done?
- Don’t publish? Never really considered an option. Freedom of speech (or, better, freedom of research) was at stake here. Besides, who can predict what research might yield potentially dangerous applications?
- Publish partially? Publish, but leave out certain key details. These can then be made available to other researchers after their credentials got checked. Unfortunately, no system to take care of this was/is in place. Also, who gets to decide what to leave out?
- Publish completely? Just publish the studies. Lots of research comes with the potential of misuse by others, but should this really stop scientific enquiry? Surely not. Besides, if the studies are used by those with bad intentions, isn’t the best way to counter that making sure that many people have access to the data? Know your enemy, or something like that…?
Anyway, now Nature has decided to publish one of the avian flu studies in full. (Open access too. Reference below.) Well done, I think… (In this editorial, Nature defends its choice.)
Science is neither good nor bad. It’s how it’s used. So, the solution can’t be to curb research. Promoting ethical use of scientific knowledge is surely a better option…?
Imai, M., Watanabe, T., Hatta, M., Das, S.C., Ozawa, M., Shinya, K., Zhong, G., Hanson, A., Katsura, H. & Watanabe, S. (2012). Experimental adaptation of an influenza H5 HA confers respiratory droplet transmission to a reassortant H5 HA/H1N1 virus in ferrets, Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature10831