Editors of the world's leading scientific journals announced today that they would delete details from published studies that might help terrorists make biological weapons.
The editors, joined by several prominent scientists, said they would not censor scientific data or adopt a top-secret classification system similar to that used by the military and government intelligence agencies.
But they said scientists working in the post-Sept. 11 world must face the dismaying paradox that many of their impressive breakthroughs can be used for sinister purposes.
The new editing methods will be voluntary and will differ among the 32 publications and scientific associations that agreed to the effort. Those include the journals Science, Nature, Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, the New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet.
Most major advancements -- from decoding the human genome to the cloning of Dolly the sheep -- are revealed to the world through those journals.
The new policy emerged from a Jan. 9 meeting at the National Academy of Sciences, where researchers and journal editors reviewed potentially sensitive studies. They unveiled their agreement at the national meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Proponents acknowledged they are walking a "very fine line" in trying to protect the public without chilling research. Few, if any, of the thousands of research papers reviewed annually for publication would be rejected outright, they said. Papers would still contain sufficient details to allow other scientists to independently duplicate experiments -- a vital step in validating discoveries.
"We do live in different times now," said Ronald Atlas, president of the American Society of Microbiology and a leader of the biosecurity review movement. "The information we possess has the potential for misuse. We will take the appropriate steps to protect the public."
Indeed, it has never been easier to tweak a microbe's genes to create a deadlier, drug-resistant superbug for a germ bomb or hijack aerosol technology meant for convenient spray vaccines to make anthrax spores float through the air.
Journal editors said they were establishing their own expert panels to review papers that contain alarming information, and would work with the authors to make specific changes and "tone them down."
Most journals rarely face such questions. Atlas said journals published by the microbiololgy association found two research papers in that past year that raised eyebrows, and both were published after the authors agreed to changes.
One of the excised details demonstrated how a microbe could be modified so it could kill 1 million people instead of 10,000. "It was something that was best not told," Atlas said. He declined to identify the microbe.
Atlas said spotting risky research is not black and white. "You know it when you see it," he said.
It is a daunting task. Not only does the review cover obvious subjects such as smallpox and toxic chemicals, but it also includes a wide array of related scientific disciplines that could affect their diagnosis and containment.
"There could be a paper on the rate of speed of a particular infection," said Science editor Donald Kennedy, formerly president of Stanford University. "It could be of tremendous value in immunization and quarantine strategies. But it could also be of tremendous value to someone trying to evade those strategies."
Others worry that security measures could hamper breakthroughs in basic science and engineering.