Ronald Atlas. The ASM president urges more discussion on scientific publication and national security.

Terrorism: Publish and Perish?

A major scientific society has sent a letter to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) requesting a meeting of biomedical publishers to discuss whether and how to publish research that might be co-opted by bioterrorists. The NAS plans to comply, and is tentatively organizing a meeting for this fall.

The devastation of 11 September and the subsequent anthrax attacks sparked concerns about publishing work on certain pathogens. While most scientists continue to favor broad access to scientific information, two recent papers in particular have raised worries among the general public and some scientists. One, published in the Journal of Virology in December, described how to make mousepox, a cousin of smallpox, more virulent; in the other, published earlier this month in Science, a trio of biologists constructed poliovirus from mail-ordered DNA (ScienceNOW, 11 July). Although the polio sequence is freely available over the Internet and building the virus is not particularly challenging, many researchers condemned the paper's publication for needlessly raising fears among the public that scientists are offering instruction manuals to aspiring terrorists.

Given these concerns, the American Society for Microbiologists (ASM) sent NAS a letter on 22 July asking it to convene a publishers' meeting. "How are we going to alter the field of science to deal with this fear?" asks Ronald Atlas, the president of ASM, which represents 34,000 scientists. NAS is now discussing who to invite, such as national security experts in addition to publishers of various biomedical journals, says Eileen Choffnes, a senior program director at NAS. Still, Choffnes believes that scientists are qualified to determine whether research might pose a national security risk if publicized.

Scientists welcome the meeting, but add that decisions about what to publish go beyond the publishers. "I think it's important [for journals] to be discussing this, but I think it's unrealistic to think that journals can and should play the role of the sole enforcer," says Claire Fraser, director of The Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Maryland, which posts a range of microbial gene sequences online. "Funding agencies need to weigh in, [and] maybe university review committees." Fraser also supports a "clear-cut media strategy" to avoid setting off alarms when researchers overwhelmingly agree that they aren't warranted.

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