Last week, the placid pages of Science, among the world’s leading scientific journals, saw the rekindling of one of modern science’s oldest and yet unsatisfactorily resolved conundrums. A government panel in the US asked the journal to edit out details of research work that detailed the creation of a modified H5N1, or bird flu virus, that can rapidly spread within ferrets. Virus transmission patterns in ferrets are a popular bellwether for viral transmission in humans, which is why government scientists fear that explicit knowledge on creating such life forms could arm bioterrorists with new means to inflict terror.
Bruce Albert, Science’s editor-in-chief, in a statement said that his publication had concerns about withholding important information, such as details of such groundbreaking work, from influenza researchers. While it hasn’t categorically denied the US government’s request, it has said that its decision to publish this research will significantly depend on the US government providing a written plan to ensure that responsible scientists, who require such information to advance public health and security, not be denied access to these scientific findings.
It is strange that a country such as the US that has cemented its wealth and progress on the back of cutting-edge science has expressed such apprehensions. Unlike the decades preceding the development of the atomic bomb, when science could be conducted in tightly controlled silos and publication and information snailed across the world through paper and manuscript, modern science greatly relies on electronic networks. Drafts of papers are put up on freely accessible websites and usually peer-reviewed by multitudes of experts much before formal, print, publication.
In fact the scientists concerned must have already discussed much of their work in conferences before publication and it’s very likely that the meat and import of their work are already being discussed through emails and Skype in influenza labs, much before publication. The professionalization of science has further meant that each field is so specialized that it’s almost impossible to predict how a finding in one field, say virology, may directly influence progress in another area, such as computer science. Suppressing any science would thus not only be futile, but also counterproductive.
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