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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 security.

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 bioterrorism.

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 changes?

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 diseases—both 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 routinely—long 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 problem—legally 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 terrorism.

The editors and authors group went on to say that the integrity of science must be maintained—science 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 danger.

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 citizenship—not 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 regulations?

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 Coordinator