for our e-mail list for updates and socially responsible
1015 18th St. NW
Washington, DC 20036
Tel: 202 429-8900
Fax: 202 429-8905
Academia's Biological Studies in War Time
An Interview with Dr. Ronald Atlas
Dr. Ronald Atlas is the President of the American
Society for Microbiology as well as, Dean of the Graduate School
and faculty at the University of Louisville. The ASM is the largest
single life science society, composed of over 42,000 scientists
and health professionals. The Society publishes eleven scientific
journals focusing on distinct specialties within the microbiological
sciences, including Infection and Immunity, Journal of Bacteriology,
and Journal of Virology. The ASM's mission is to promote research
and research training in the microbiological sciences and to assist
communication between scientists, policy makers, and the public
to improve health, the environment, and economic well-being. The
Society is dedicated to the utilization of microbiological sciences
for the promotion of human welfare and for the accumulation of knowledge.
Briefly describe the role of your organization
in the debate around balancing scientific openness and national
The American Society for Microbiology has been at the vanguard of
seeking the ethical conduct of science. This has included a leadership
role in trying to balance national security concerns, i.e. that
scientific knowledge in the life sciences not be misused to do harm.
Microbiologists will work for the proper and beneficent application
of science and will call to the attention of the public or the appropriate
authorities misuses of microbiology or of information derived from
microbiology. ASM members are obligated to discourage any use of
microbiology contrary to the welfare of humankind, including the
use of microbes as biological weapons. Bioterrorism violates the
fundamental principles expressed in the Code of Ethics of the Society
and is abhorrent to the ASM and its members. The scientific community
must act responsibly to comply with regulations and to develop self-policing
policies that protect national security and permit the scientific
progress needed for the protection of public health in the era of
What, if any, changes to scientific openness within the
biological sciences community have you witnessed since the start
of the war on terrorism? What do you think about these changes?
What is your organization's policy/stance about these
The major change is one of concern and uncertainty about how to
conduct biological research in a secure manner and what constitutes
dangerous information and how to conduct the increased biodefense
effort safely. There is fear that government regulation could have
a chilling impact on research and that the US scientific community
could become isolated from international colleagues. The ASM has
sought to ensure that regulations not have a chilling impact on
science and that open communication of fundamental scientific findings
continues to support the development of global defenses against
infectious diseasesboth naturally occurring and those that
might represent acts of bioterrorism.
Is it possible to regulate the publication of biological
research? Is the regulation of biological research findings plausible?
One could classify biological research and thus regulation of publication
of bioscience research is possible. But since biological research
is not born classified the restrictions would have to be instituted
at the onset of research. It is also possible for government agencies
to control the publication of research generated by government researchers.
This occurs routinelylong before 9/11/01. But it is not especially
common in the life sciences. Bruce Alberts and the other Presidents
of the National Academies have called for building high walls (classification)
around narrowly defined areas of research. The issue is then how
to narrowly define research. Since most (almost all) research in
the life sciences will fall outside the boundaries of classification,
the question is then whether there should be government regulation
of communication of non-classified sensitive homeland security information.
Without the ability to specifically define such information government
regulation would present a serious problemlegally binding
systems require clear and precise definition.
Is there a way to balance the needs of national security
and the scientific community?
What is really needed is integration of security concerns into the
normal scientific process. The ASM requested that the National Academy
of Sciences convene a meeting to consider how to balance the traditional
openness of publication in the life sciences with national security
concerns about the potential misuse of biotechnology. The National
Academy joined by the Center for Strategic and International Studies
held a workshop on January 9, 2003. The ASM hosted a follow-up meeting
of editors, author-scientists, and government representatives on
January 10 to assess what steps journals might take to help protect
against the misuse of science for bioterrorism.
Following the workshop, the editors and publishers issued a statement
that appeared in a number of major journals. The group said that
the process of scientific publication, through which new findings
are reviewed for quality and then presented to the rest of the scientific
community and the public, is a vital element in our national life.
They recognized that questions have been asked by scientists themselves
and by some political leaders about the possibility that new information
published in research journals might give aid to those with malevolent
ends. The group declared a fundamental view, shared by nearly all,
that there is information that, although we cannot now capture it
with lists or definitions, presents enough risk of use by terrorists
that it should not be published. How and by what processes it might
be identified will continue to challenge us, because as all
present acknowledged - it is also true that open publication brings
benefits not only to public health but also in efforts to combat
The editors and authors group went on to say that the integrity
of science must be maintainedscience is too important to jeopardize
it. We must protect the integrity of the scientific process by publishing
manuscripts of high quality, in sufficient detail to permit reproducibility.
Without independent verification a requirement for scientific
progress we can neither advance biomedical research nor provide
the knowledge base for building strong biodefense systems. Recognizing
this, we declared that editors and scientists will act responsibly
without government intervention. We are committed to dealing responsibly
and effectively with safety and security issues that may be raised
by papers submitted for publication, and to increasing our capacity
to identify such issues as they arise. Accordingly we recognized
that on occasions an editor may conclude that the potential harm
of publication outweighs the potential societal benefits. Under
such circumstances, the paper should be modified, or not be published.
Thus, we have called for new ethical code or communication within
the scientific community rather than government regulation. We are
not calling for censorship. Quite the opposite. We have said that
science is too important for it to be undermined, e.g. by removing
details essential for repeatability and verification. But we must
be responsible citizens of the world and must act to ensure that
we do not communicate information that represents a clear and imminent
With regard to the American Society for Microbiology, we have adopted
a policy and established procedures for incorporating considerations
of safety into our peer review process. The ASM recognizes that
there are valid concerns regarding the publication of information
in scientific journals that could be put to inappropriate use. The
editors of the ASM journals are trying to be responsible stewards
of scientific information and communication by carefully balancing
national security with the value of advancing science for the benefit
of humanity. This is a policy of responsible citizenshipnot
one of censorship.
How would regulations affect academics in the United States,
especially compared to their international colleagues?
The question is not establishing national regulations outside of
the international norms. Rather there must be international agreement
and valuing of the incorporation of security considerations into
the life sciences endeavor. It is reasonable for all nations to
institute policies for protecting the security of dangerous microorganisms.
Organizations like the OIE in Paris have long sought to control
the spread of dangerous animal diseases. As such securing animal
pathogens is a step that increases security and safety around the
world. The publishers group that met was an international group
of editors and authors representative of the fact that science is
an international endeavor. The US cannot go it alone. It can seek
a leadership position but that must be based upon achieving multinational
and global security.
Are there possible alternatives that would address the question
of national security?
The approach taken by the publishers group is an effective alternative
to government regulation. It is similar to the approach taken at
the onset of biotechnology where scientists met at Asilomar and
acted to ensure that recombinant DNA research was conducted in a
safe manner. The meeting at Asilomar led to the NIH Guidelines,
the Recombinant Advisory Committee and international accord on levels
of containment that would ensure protection of the public.
Over the next two years what direction do you think the
Bush administration will steer the national biological research
I have no particular insight as to any new regulatory initiatives.
We are implementing regulations to control access as mandated by
the Biopreparedness Act. These are being phased in. They are likely
to be rigorously enforced. I would expect that there will be efforts
to gain broad international acceptance of this approach and to encourage
other nations to adopt similar regulations to safeguard possession
of dangerous pathogens.
Is there a role students can plan in the struggle between
scientific openness and national security?
Students are the future. As such they must adopt the highest ethical
standards. Compliance with regulations. Dialogue as to what constitutes
dangerous research. And above all commitment to furthering science
for the betterment of humankind.
Submitted by: Liz Walsh, Education Program