US asks Science, Nature to voluntarily censor scientific articles

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?