US asks Science, Nature to voluntarily censor scientific articles

| 21 Comments

According to The New York Times, the United States government has asked the journals Science and Nature “not to publish details of certain biomedical experiments, for fear that the information could be used by terrorists to create deadly viruses and touch off epidemics.” The experiments involved the development of a lethal and highly transmissible form of the H5N1 avian flu virus, a virus that so far has been transmitted mostly from birds to humans, but not from humans to humans. The government fears that if certain details are published, then terrorists could get hold of them and manufacture viruses used for biological warfare.

Update, December 22: Carl Zimmer reports that Science has issued a statement along the lines of, “We haven’t made up our minds yet, but we may do so when you tell us how ‘responsible’ scientists can actually get hold of the data.” In the meantime, Science reports that the authors of the papers have “grudgingly” decided to “redact” their papers.

The editor of Science, Bruce Alberts, has tentatively stated his willingness to comply with the government’s request, but has asked that in return the government develop a system for supplying the omitted details to “legitimate scientists worldwide who need it” [Times‘s wording, possibly not Alberts’s].

The researchers apparently would not agree to an interview with the Times. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, described the research as being important to public health policy, but added, according to the Times, “I’m sure there will be some people who say these experiments never should have been done.”

A report I heard on National Public Radio suggested that hundreds of “legitimate scientists” might be eligible for getting the omitted details. I daresay that if hundreds of people learn those details, then those details will not remain secret for very long.

So: Two questions for readers who know more about these matters than I do: (1) Is the government’s request meaningful, or is it merely theater? (2) Should the research never have been done?

21 Comments

The US Government thinks ‘security through obscurity’ can work. It doesn’t, and won’t. As John W. Campbell Jr. noted, “Mother Nature is a blabbermouth – she’ll tell anybody who asks the right questions.” If scientists don’t talk about work on dangerous viruses, that does not mean that no one is working on dangerous viruses; rather, it means that whatever work is being done on dangerous viruses, nobody else will know about. Any scientists who do happen to be working with terrorists aren’t going to publish in the first place, so does it really make sense to hobble legit scientists with this kind of gag order?

Oh I doubt they think it will work. Asking for it is just part of due diligence. Kind of like stopping at a stop sign when there is no other traffic around. It may be pointless, but you can still get a ticket if you don’t.

I can see it slowing acquisition (by bad people) down for maybe a couple of years. But not stopping it.

Doubtful that it’s theater, if by theater you mean ‘symbolic gesture for public consumption.’ The USG is, ironically, in serious danger of creating a Streisand effect and drawing more bad guy attention to exactly the things it wants their attention away from.

However it might be theater, if by that you mean ‘going with a plan which they know has a 90% chance of not working because they can’t think of any better plan.’

How many samples of that 1918 flu are out there anymore?

Enough sequences have been published, I think, that eventually someone could put it together. That cat is probably out of the bag, but, some “bad guys” probably cannot pull out their pocket virology lab and weaponize H5N1 right away.

What I question is how the Feds imagine they will be able to use the research to defend against the virulence features through research on blocking methods, without the data they want to keep secret becoming widely known. The advantage of open scientific publication is that there will be a huge race to find a way to block flu virulence, which would also (probably) make all flu single-shot manageable, if not avoidable.

Does anyone imagine that the US bio-weapons cadre is the “best and brightest?”

From what I’ve read, it doesn’t sound like the labs did anything special to culture H5N1. Their techniques sound like normal flu researcher stuff, like passaging it through ferrets.

Any country with access to H5N1, a business of ferrets, (or prison population), and a lab could do the same evolution experiment.

For years I have witnessed the “purity” with which some scientists approach the disclosure of newly discovered information. The naivete’ evidenced by some is quite simply breathtaking. I have several comments regarding the first few replies to this article. 1) Mother Nature is not a “Blabbermouth”. If she were research science would be out of a job. (This sounds like “crystal hugging” to me. “Just be silent and the music of the spheres will reveal itself to you!”) Yeah Right. And, no one is trying to hobble “legit scientists” it’s the other “Non-legits” that are we might at least slow down. (Oh, and by the by and “Legit” researcher is probably less than three places removed from the guys that conducted the original research, so they might be privy to the information any time they NEED it) 2) How many samples of that 1918 flu are out there anymore? PLENTY!! Get a clue! 3)Does anyone imagine that the US bio-weapons cadre is the “best and brightest?” Anyone who doesn’t has their head wedged! The U.S. has the largest number of medical/research/weapon people on the planet. There may be one, or even a few in other countries, but by the bulk of shere numbers, the U.S. has the most, and the best chance of having the “best and brightest?” (China and India are definatly up and comers, but they still send their researchers to the U.S. to study.)

Imagine a real article entitled “How to mage a low yield, nuclear device in your garage, using Rite-Aid and Home Depot and Mail Order purchases”, being published in Popular Science? What??, lots of people would have eventually figured it out anyway?

That’s your excuse!!??

The freedom of the exchange of scientific information is not, (or at least shouldn’t be) a suicide pact. (See “naivete’ above)

(By the way, I am pretty much a radical when it comes to the free flow of information, but please, grow up!)

Janthrops

Janthropos said: And, no one is trying to hobble “legit scientists” it’s the other “Non-legits” that are we might at least slow down.

Of course not. The problem, Jan, is you can’t always tell the difference. If we could tell the difference, there would be no need for this embargo, as we’d just round up the non-legits.

Imagine a real article entitled “How to mage [sic] a low yield, nuclear device in your garage, using Rite-Aid and Home Depot and Mail Order purchases”, being published in Popular Science? What??, lots of people would have eventually figured it out anyway?

This paragraph illustrates a lack of technical understanding of the issues surrounding CBRN security and threats. Nukes are a completely different issue because in that case, the difficulty of the engineering is what prevents proliferation. Its not ignorance of the essential steps. And, in fact, those have been published widely. Nuclear engineering 101 course often have students calculate exactly what amount of what material(s) you need to build a bomb as a class exercise. Back in the ’80s, a boy scout produced a small amount of U-233 from Th-232. The qualitative info is available to practically anyone and the quantitative info is regularly given out to undergrads. IOW, despite your implication, we don’t try to hide this information. It is, in fact, a counter-example to your argument instead of being an example. But the bigger lesson here is that if you’re trying to draw biosecurity lessons based on nuclear security, the chances are good that your understanding of either is superficial at best.

eric said:

Janthropos said: And, no one is trying to hobble “legit scientists” it’s the other “Non-legits” that are we might at least slow down.

Of course not. The problem, Jan, is you can’t always tell the difference. If we could tell the difference, there would be no need for this embargo, as we’d just round up the non-legits.

Imagine a real article entitled “How to mage [sic] a low yield, nuclear device in your garage, using Rite-Aid and Home Depot and Mail Order purchases”, being published in Popular Science? What??, lots of people would have eventually figured it out anyway?

This paragraph illustrates a lack of technical understanding of the issues surrounding CBRN security and threats. Nukes are a completely different issue because in that case, the difficulty of the engineering is what prevents proliferation. Its not ignorance of the essential steps. And, in fact, those have been published widely. Nuclear engineering 101 course often have students calculate exactly what amount of what material(s) you need to build a bomb as a class exercise. Back in the ’80s, a boy scout produced a small amount of U-233 from Th-232. The qualitative info is available to practically anyone and the quantitative info is regularly given out to undergrads. IOW, despite your implication, we don’t try to hide this information. It is, in fact, a counter-example to your argument instead of being an example. But the bigger lesson here is that if you’re trying to draw biosecurity lessons based on nuclear security, the chances are good that your understanding of either is superficial at best.

Yet, I must agree that security through obscurity has been (and still is) widely exploited in the nuclear field. Try to scavenge correct and up-to-date information on the optimal shape for the tamper of a Teller-Ulam design, for instance. Of course, this strategy has never paied in the long run: a determinded nation (i.e.: North Korea) can have its indigenous nuclear device, if so wishes.

I know nothing at all of the security issues posed by research in biology, but I have the impression that the technology involved is available even to determined and well-funded small groups (or even individuals, let alone whole nations), thus triyng to whitheld information is probably even less effective a security strategy than it is in the nuclear field.

Trying… Whithold…

Proofreading: an obscure art.

Note that although an outbreak of the 1918 flu would be a disaster, many of the 1918 deaths were due to opportunistic bacterial infections that could be treated today.

We may be just a “bipartisan austerity package” away from voluntarily destroying our ability to handle treatable infectious diseases, but we’re not there yet.

Censorship will clearly inhibit legitimate research aimed at treatment much more thani it will inhibit any (much easier to achieve) plot to hurt people by exposing them to influenza virus.

I perceive the censorship as more part of the general trend toward authoritarian but useless plutocratic government shifting blame to scapegoats and riling mobs. The point here is mainly to proactively create the situation tthat, if or when there is a flu pandemic for any reason, the public will be manipulated into blaming scientists who study influenza rather than

Rather than those who dismantled public health protections, that is. Sorry for cut-off.

terenzioiltroll said: Yet, I must agree that security through obscurity has been (and still is) widely exploited in the nuclear field. Try to scavenge correct and up-to-date information on the optimal shape for the tamper of a Teller-Ulam design, for instance.

That’s an H-bomb design. AFAIK, nobody thinks any terrorist organization is trying to improvise one of those. The details of stuff like that are kept under wraps to prevent nation-state proliferation, not Al Qaeda.

Reread Jan’s example. He’s claiming something more like the nuclear field tries to obscure calutron technology as a security measure - basic ‘how to’ stuff. We don’t.

How many samples of that 1918 flu are out there anymore?

Not many. It was extinct until scientists got some archival sequences and resurrected it. This BTW, is close to what the creationists always claim is impossible, the creation of life.

But the descendants still are around. IIRC, 1918 was H1N1 and during the last flu season, two H1N1’s were circulating, the swine flu and a seasonal H1N1, both derived from the original 1918 virus.

Note that although an outbreak of the 1918 flu would be a disaster, many of the 1918 deaths were due to opportunistic bacterial infections that could be treated today.

Some of them might have been due to a cytokine storm, especially in young and healthy adults.

What is more worrying is that the anti-flu drugs we have are being made useless by evolution. The older class, amantadine and a related drug are now useless, possibly because the Chinese used them in chicken feed. The neuraminidase inhibitors still work sort of, but there are a lot of flu strains that are now resistant to them too.

I have some direct knowledge of the classification of research work by the military, having had several years of my own research suddenly classified without warning. It started with a paper - written by me and a colleague – that had been accepted for publication in a well-known journal and was already in press. The military swooped in and asked the journal to stop the presses and pull the paper. As a result, there are three blank pages in that issue of the journal.

Several others of our papers of that work, which were already under review, were also classified and never saw the light of day.

It was upsetting at the time because it was some good work that went from basic research all the way to applications. But I later learned more about the context in which the military classified that work, and I had to agree that it was necessary. As far as I know, the work is still classified after over 25 years; and access to the technology is highly restricted even in the areas where it is used in basic research.

There are a number of reasons that research – even research that is considered basic – might be classified. Some of the reasons come under the umbrella of “know how” in which the techniques for accomplishing something are either not obvious or would speed up the efforts on the part of people who seek to use the knowledge for bad purposes.

Other reasons fall within the category of making the technology based on the research vulnerable to attack or countermeasures. If enemies don’t understand the principles behind a technology, they are less likely to be able to nullify its use or even know that it is being used. The latter case is one of the more important; if the research and the resulting technology are difficult or simply not obvious to the imagination, there won’t be any attempts to counter its use. And in many cases, knowledge of one kind of research gives deeper insight into other technology that is already being used out in the field and is seemingly unrelated.

Many times we in research aren’t thinking about the nasty things that might be done with our work; I wasn’t at the time. I have to admit that I was feeling quite clever and smug about what I and my colleague had accomplished – we had scooped an entire field of research extremely thoroughly; all the way from our basic physics, our ab initio calculations, to fabrication, and onward to applications. We understood thoroughly and could control every aspect of our work. At the time, I wasn’t prepared for the consequences of what we had accomplished; I never even imagined them.

Having said all that, I am still under the impression that the military and many industries classify too much. In fact, my initial impression of the classification of my own work was that it was silly. Why would the military classify something so basic? As it turned out, the military had already planted red herrings in the literature regarding some of the basics of this research. I never imagined that the military would do this, but they did. What I saw in the literature looked silly to me because I had already figured out the basics that even the military researchers didn’t know.

Unfortunately we live in an extremely complex world in which our research – however pure – may have some socio/political impact that might endanger the welfare of people and countries. And a little historical review will show that this has always been the case.

Researchers – especially those receiving public funds to do basic research – are never isolated islands of purity and “goodness” working for the common good; even if they think of themselves that way. Naiveté and cloistered isolation can be dangerous. Researchers live in a community of support; and they need to be aware of their communities and the contexts in which they live.

Proofreading: an obscure art.

You might start with a spelling checker.

Janthropos said:

How to build a nuclear weapon is fairly common knowledge. Rite-Aid, and Home Depot are already known to not have the resources, so you analogy fails.

When I was a graduate student, we all shared a lab. We each had a key to the door, and one to our private cabinet. And chemicals, or materials we particularly needed were kept in our cabinet, but common stock, or surplus supplies were put into an open stock cabinet. One day an inspector from the Drug Enforcement Agency came to the lab. He saw the open stock, and his eyes bugged out. “Do you know what you could make with that stuff?”

Sure we did. It was a chem lab. We were chemists. We can make stuff.

This comment has been moved to The Bathroom Wall.

The Government has asked science journals to censor all criticism of evolutionary theory, has it?

And all the editorial staff of all the science journals just obeyed like automatons, did they? All the science journals in the world, huh? They all just obeyed this government directive, and didn’t protest or say anything in public, because the government said not to, eh?

Don’t let the door knock your tinfoil hat off on the way out, ‘Clasty.

Dave Luckett said:

The Government has asked science journals to censor all criticism of evolutionary theory, has it?

And all the editorial staff of all the science journals just obeyed like automatons, did they? All the science journals in the world, huh? They all just obeyed this government directive, and didn’t protest or say anything in public, because the government said not to, eh?

Don’t let the door knock your tinfoil hat off on the way out, ‘Clasty.

Do remember that Atheistoclast is a) not on speaking terms with reality or truth, and b) he futilely hopes to somehow cow us with his preposterous lies into worshiping him as God of Science.

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This page contains a single entry by Matt Young published on December 21, 2011 12:34 PM.

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