- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 30, 2003

Should scientists be prevented from publishing research that might be of use to terrorists? If so, who should do the preventing? A piece in the British journal New Scientist summarizes the arguments.
No one doubts that the government should be able to keep legitimately classified information secret: How military sonar works, or the abilities of spy satellites. What is being talked about is unclassified information that might be used in terrorism.
New Scientist gives as an example of research in which an American scientist downloaded the genetic sequence for the polio virus from the Internet and, using widely available chemicals and equipment, synthesized a virus.
A lot of such information is out there. Over a decade ago, people were horrified to find that instructions for manufacturing nerve agents were publicly available in libraries, as they now are on the Internet. Data on growing dangerous bacteria and viruses are readily found.
What about the case of the Australian scientists who recently, and unintentionally, created a "supervirus" that could kill all mice? Could such research lead to engineering of a virus that could kill all people? Should they have been permitted to publish?
Pressure, not terribly intense now, exists to mandate pre-publication vetting of research. Says New Scientist, "In February 2002, for instance, scientists funded by the U.S. Department of Defense were told they may soon be required to submit their work for review before publishing it." Similarly, says the magazine, the Department of Agriculture asked the National Academy of Sciences not to release a study on agroterrorism even though the information in it was publicly available.
Much of what sounds like dangerous information can't be controlled. A friend of mine, a former organic chemist, can scribble the syntheses for nerve agents on a table napkin over lunch. He has no clearances and hasn't worked on chemical warfare. Chemistry is just chemistry. It isn't secret.
For that matter, the idea of synthesizing a virus has occurred to every biochemistry student. The equipment for doing it is available.
Agroterrorism? Any bright student of microbiology can determine the major diseases that afflict cattle, where to find them and how to grow them.
There are at least three problems in trying to prevent publication of such information. First, a great deal of useful research can, with minor modifications, be used for destructive purposes. You would have to stifle the good to prevent the bad.
Second, a topic for dormitory bull sessions today is the laboratory breakthrough of tomorrow. You might keep secret, at least for a while, specific bits of research, such as the sequences for particular viruses. You can't stop for long the advance of basic knowledge.
Third, government censorship of research would be a nightmare. Medical, agricultural and nuclear research, as well as work on explosives or metallurgy just about anything could be regarded as relevant to terrorism. A huge federal police bureaucracy would be needed to vet all such investigation. Paperwork would asphyxiate research, which would probably move offshore. Scientists compete by making discoveries and publishing them. A delay of six months or six years would cripple them. And, of course, other countries would continue to publish.
Who would do the vetting for the government? First-rate minds don't take government jobs censoring the research of others. Further, research tends to be cutting-edge stuff understood by people right at the forefront of their fields.
The dangers of technological terrorism look real, especially that of creating designer viruses, and increase as technology advances. But the probability of being able to control information, or even decide which information to control, seems low, particularly in the Internet age.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide