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Science Journal Editors Join Anti-Terrorism Effort

February 16, 2003|From Associated Press

DENVER — Editors of the world's leading scientific journals announced Saturday that they would delete details from published studies that might help terrorists make biological weapons.

The editors, joined by several prominent scientists, said they would not censor scientific data or adopt a top-secret classification system similar to that used by the military and government intelligence agencies.

But they said scientists working in the post-Sept. 11 world must face the dismaying paradox that many of their impressive breakthroughs can be used for sinister purposes.

The new editing methods will be voluntary and will differ among the 32 publications and scientific groups that agreed to the effort, including the journals Science, Nature, Proceedings of the National Academies of Science and the New England Journal of Medicine.

Most major advancements -- from decoding the human genome to the cloning of Dolly the sheep -- are revealed to the world through those journals.

The new policy emerged from a Jan. 9 meeting at the National Academy of Sciences, where researchers and journal editors reviewed potentially sensitive studies. They unveiled their agreement at the national meeting of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science.

Proponents acknowledged they are walking a "very fine line" in trying to protect the public without chilling research. Few, if any, of the thousands of research papers reviewed annually for publication would be rejected outright, they said. Papers still would contain sufficient details to allow other scientists to independently duplicate experiments -- a vital step in validating discoveries.

"We do live in different times now," said Ronald Atlas, president of the American Society for Microbiology and a leader of the biosecurity review movement. "The information we possess has the potential for misuse. We will take the appropriate steps to protect the public."

It has never been easier to tweak a microbe's genes to create a deadlier, drug-resistant superbug for a germ bomb or hijack aerosol technology meant for convenient spray vaccines to make anthrax spores float through the air.

Journal editors said they were establishing their own expert panels to review papers that contain alarming information, and would work with the authors to make specific changes and "tone them down."

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