Airborne Bird Flu Transmission: Balancing Scientific Recourse and National Security

By Chris Healey

Articles recently published in the scientific journal Cell mark the end of a long battle for one researcher in his endeavor to publish research that raises security concerns.

Ron Fouchier, a virologist with Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands, published an article in Cell explaining how H5N1, the causative agent of bird flu, can be genetically modified for airborne transmission between mammals. Dr. Fouchier says his research can help prevent bird flu pandemics. However, others in the scientific community believe Dr. Fouchier will cause what he seeks to prevent.

David Relman, a researcher at Stanford University, says Dr. Fouchier is essentially giving would-be terrorists instructions on how create a deadly contagion.


The controversy began in December 2011 when the  National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), a federal advisory committee composed of twenty-five members who provide expertise in areas such as molecular biology and infectious diseases, advised all scientific journals to refrain from publishing Dr. Fouchier’s H5N1 airborne transmission research.

In February of 2012, the World Health Organization released its own evaluation of the research. The WHO stated Dr. Fochier’s work had scientific value and should be shared in its entirety. Shortly after the WHO’s report, the NSABB reevaluated the research findings. In March 2012, it retracted its recommendation to refrain from publishing. The complete study, along with all its findings, was finally published in Cell on April 10, 2014.

By its nature, science is a cumulative process. Communication among professionals is essential to promote progress and mutual understanding. Experts agree scientific advancement progresses best when least inhibited by authority. Government intervention generally pushes great minds away from heavily-scrutinized areas into those less regulated.

However, national security remains a priority and precedent exists for controlling scientific literature. The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 was passed to control and restrict nuclear weapons research conducted in the United States during WWII. No similar legislation exists to prevent communication of biological findings. However, the government can take steps to restrict research with dual use findings.

Government information classification, colloquially known as identifying information as top secret, secret, or confidential, is useful for keeping government-owned information away from the public. However, research the government had no part in creating, either through federal funding or conducted by government employees cannot be given a sensitivity label.

A common practice in government funding of scientific research is the requirement of funding to be contingent upon acceptance of sensitive but unclassified contract provisions. Those provisions allow the government to have authority on whether research findings can be published.

Dr. Fouchier’s research was precarious because it was conducted in a foreign university but supported by U.S federal funds. Outside the United States, the federal government has less control over research conducted under its auspices. It is unclear if Dr. Fouchier’s research was subject to a sensitive but unclassified contract provision.

With the power of the purse, the federal government can influence research and publication decisions through threat of funding withdrawal. While federal money funds much scientific research, simply pulling funding is not a fool-proof censorship method. Private benefactors can step in for lack of government support. The government can wield no financial influence on those sources receiving no government funding, including research funded by foreign governments.

Outside of financial influence, the government can best stop publication of sensitive material through NSABB recommendation. The committee has many ties to scholarly publications and is generally well respected. Initial recommendations not to publish Dr. Fouchier’s research were very influential; it was not published until well after committee approval.

There is no straight-forward answer to questions concerning science and security dissidence. Benefits of sharing scientific research must be weighed with harm that could arise from that research.

 

Image Credit: James Jin/Flickr

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