- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Within the life-science community, there is a growing discussion on the need to balance openness with national security concerns. The central problem is that the openness and free flow of information that scientists depend on to make life-benefiting discoveries can also be used by rogues tyrants or terrorists to make life-destroying weapons. Those concerns, on both sides, have become so serious they were the focus of a recent conference co-hosted by the National Academy of Sciences and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Many D.C.-area residents gained a first hand appreciation of the evil possibilities inherent in biological weapons during the post-September 11 anthrax attacks. Moreover, new molecular techniques only make potential biological weapons that much more frightening. Professor Eckard Wimmer and his associates at State University of New York in Stony Brook gave a pseudo-living demonstration of such possibilities last July, when they announced that they had assembled an inactive polio virus using supplies easily purchased and knowledge easily acquired on the Internet.
Yet, where soldiers and civilians fear bioterrorism, scientists fear censorship. They fear that government pressure whether subtle or overt could stifle scientific research and delay, or even deny, life-saving discoveries. They also see censorship as giving a false sense of security where there may be none.
So, as John Marburger, the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy asked at a recent conference, "How should society behave to avoid giving aid to the enemy without at the same time stifling the progress of science and the realization of its benefits?"
For the most part, the administration supports the scientific community's desire for openness. Specifically, it has followed the Reagan-era National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 189, which states, "It is the policy of this administration that, to the maximum extent possible, the products of fundamental research remain unrestricted." Under NSDD 189, classification is the mechanism for control of information generated by federally funded research. Such determinations are made before federal grants are given. NSDD 189 was affirmed by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice shortly after September 11 and again by Mr. Marburger at the recent conference.
However, NSDD 189 says nothing perhaps the life sciences' greatest concern so-called "sensitive" information, which is unclassified information that, while not threatening in itself, still could conceivably give aid to terrorists attempting to assemble biological weapons.
While there is no ideal solution, some standards for screening sensitive information should be set in place, preferably by the science community. To that end, the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) has set in place a review process for potentially sensitive materials. Under those guidelines, set up in December 2001, reviewers who believe that a manuscript describes potential misuses of microbiology contact the editor of the journal, who in turn presents the paper to the rest of the publishing hierarchy. Eventually a decision is reached on whether to publish or decline the paper. Moreover, all of the papers that involve "select agents" potential pathogens that the government sees as potential security risks are also required to be reviewed by the journal's editor in chief and the chair of the publications board. Only a small fraction of the 14,000 manuscripts that the society received last year were rejected for such reasons, but it's still a start.
However, how far the rest of the life-sciences community will cooperate with security concerns remains to be seen. While the signs are encouraging, the problem is still an open-and-shut case.


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