The Pandora’s Box of Biology

Biodefense faculty member Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley has a new piece out in the most recent issue of the George Mason Global Studies Review:

The Pandora’s Box of Biology

On December 20, 2011, the press announced that the US government had requested two scientific journals – Science and Nature – to refrain from publishing a full account of an experiment that increased the transmissibility of bird flu virus H5N1.1 Government concerns that bioterrorists might use published data on the experimental details to recreate the deadly virus and unleash a pandemic across the globe motivated this unprecedented action. This is not the first time that scientific breakthroughs have set off alarm bells. Since the anthrax-laced letters of 2001, the US government has been on high alert, issuing regular warnings about the misuse of biotechnology. This anxiety finds its roots in the belief that globalization and the rapid development of biotechnology facilitate access to specialized knowledge, making it easier for terrorists to apply scientific advances to nefarious purposes. Yet, the idea that knowledge created by highly specialized scientists will easily trickle down to “comparatively low-skilled practitioners” via written documents has no solid foundation. Research in the field of science and technology studies has shown that knowledge remains confined to small groups of scientists who created it, because it has a tacit component that cannot readily be transferred to other individuals or locations. Science and weapons developments are also subject to organizational and managerial demands that also affect scientific results. Therefore, access to written information alone does not allow the easy replication of previous work. The question remains: what conditions are required to replicate past work, and can terrorist groups create such conditions?

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