One of the criteria both judges and reporters use in determining whether or not to publish what may be dangerous material is, is the hazard resulting from the publication real, or is it merely theoretical? Unless there is a serious, provable danger, decision-makers almost always come down on the side of publication. This is particularly true in matters of involving debate on public policy.
Last December the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity recommended that details about research involving a new strain of flu be withheld. In the experiments, scientists created a new strain of bird flu that can be transmitted through the air from one animal to another. To put it in plain language, scientists made a dangerous flu virus even more contagious.
Now, after a furious public debate about the experiments themselves, a panel of scientific advisors has said the information will not provide terrorists with information they might need to creation a bio-weapon, and recommended that the research be published. And this past week the results appeared in two journals, Science and Nature. Still, a question remains, what exactly is being printed?
Many news outlets have said the “full details” of the research are being published, and many people are asking if that was such a smart thing to do. But what many of the stories leave out is that the original research reports themselves aren’t being made available, but modified versions that leave out many of the original details.
Officials have also apparently realized it is almost impossible to control the distribution of research results, and rather than try to limit what can be circulated, they are creating new rules for conducting dangerous research on 15 particularly deadly diseases such as Ebola, and anthrax. Thus, debate on this most serious issue will continue to be, to use a popular phrase, uninhibited, robust and wide-open.