Members of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which was created after the anthrax bioterrorism attacks of 2001, worried that such a hazardous strain might be intentionally or accidentally released into the world if directions for making it were generally known.
After weeks of reviewing papers describing the research, the NSABB said Tuesday it had recommended that the experiments’ “general conclusions” be published but not “details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm.”
“Censorship is considered the ultimate sin of original research. However, we also have an imperative to keep certain research out of the hands of individuals who could use it for nefarious purposes,” said Michael T. Osterholm, a member of the board who is also director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “It is not unexpected that these two things would clash in this very special situation.”
The board cannot stop publication. Its advice went to the Department of Health and Human Services, whose leaders asked the authors of the papers and the journals reviewing them — Science, published in Washington, and Nature, published in London — to comply.
The journals’ responses to the request were chilly, although both hinted they were willing to go along under certain conditions. Dutch researchers said they “are currently working on a new manuscript that complies with the recommendation.” The scientists at the University of Wisconsin could not be reached.
The work was paid for by the National Institutes of Health as part of a large portfolio of research aimed at “pandemic preparedness.”
The recommendation from the board puts the federal government in a distinctly controversial and embarrassing position.
It calls for a limit on the free exchange of information — something viewed as anathema by most scientists. It also suggests there wasn’t sufficient forethought about what might happen if the experiments actually worked.
“I hope that in the future we consider the consequences of these experiments long before we get to the publication phase,” said Paul S. Keim, a prominent microbiologist at Northern Arizona who chairs the NSABB.
The board, which has 23 voting members who are academic scientists and public health officials and 18 nonvoting government officials, reached the decision unanimously, Keim said. “The feeling was we need time for a broad, global discussion of the issues in this area,” he said.