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In Bad Days, Science Must Muzzle Itself

March 04, 2003|Jeremy C. Marwell | Jeremy C. Marwell is a research associate in science and technology studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

In this age of terror, when should science silence itself?

Apparently, now. In an extraordinary coalition against bioterrorism, 32 editors from Nature, Science and other leading journals in the United States and Britain have committed themselves to altering or refusing to publish the tiny fraction of papers submitted to them that could compromise security. At stake: data or results that might help terrorists use toxins or viruses as biological weapons.

The critics were quick to weigh in. How, they ask, can scientists distinguish harmful information from the innocuous? How can scientific careers and science itself advance under such a gag order? And more practically, can editors at a few elite journals really halt the flow of terrorizing information in the Internet age?

But voluntary self-censorship not only can help make us secure, it also will forestall government from censoring in a more heavy-handed way. This isn't the first time U.S. scientists have faced the need for self-censorship.

In May 1940, eight months after the outbreak of war in Europe, the U.S. physicist Gregory Breit undertook a nearly single-handed effort to halt publication of scientific articles in the newly discovered field of nuclear fission. Like many of his colleagues, Breit believed that research on fission in the uranium nucleus could lead to weapons of unprecedented destructive power. At the time, with Americans loath to enter a distant war even as Hitler marched across Europe, the U.S. government had shown little interest in official control or censorship of American fission publications.

Working with the tacit approval of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's secret "Uranium Committee," Breit persuaded editors at leading U.S. and British physics journals to delay publication of sensitive material about uranium until after the war. To decide which papers would require this status, Breit established a small reference committee composed of some of the top nuclear physicists, including current and future Nobel laureates Harold Urey, Eugene Wigner and Enrico Fermi.

Until the advent in 1942 of the Manhattan Project, which imposed tight military secrecy on sensitive uranium research and eliminated the need for self- restraint, Breit's committee reviewed and withheld dozens of papers. Among the topics deemed too sensitive for publication were uranium isotope separation and neutron dynamics, two crucial aspects in engineering an atomic bomb. These efforts kept sensitive information from German nuclear scientists.

Today's quandary is, of course, far greater than the one scientists faced in the early 1940s, when the most crucial topics were narrowly linked to uranium. Breit's effort, however, can offer lessons for today's war on bioterrorism, where the scope and diversity of potentially sensitive topics are far greater.

Imperfect action is better than doing nothing at all. In May 1940, Breit realized that every paper published would lead Germany closer to a nuclear bomb. Cobbling together a hasty, informal consensus, Breit did not wait for a congressional or presidential mandate. He simply began persuading editors.

Today, we know that terrorist groups at home and abroad are interested in biological and chemical weapons. So the editors' plan, whatever its shortcomings, at least assures that blatant cases will be filtered out. One recent paper, withheld from publication by the American Society of Microbiology, would have revealed how to modify a microbe so that it could kill 1 million people instead of 10,000.

Open publication is the lifeblood of science, conferring authorship and precedence on individual scientists and allowing the scientific community to duplicate and verify discoveries. As a physicist, Breit recognized the crucial importance of publishing whenever possible. His panel struggled to distinguish between "pure science" and results that might have dangerous implications or applications.

Similarly, today's approach places journal editors, who have a personal and professional stake in maintaining open scientific dialogue, in a central role. Imagine the alternative: a government-mandated program, perhaps including the creeping authorities of the military and intelligence services, likely to err toward excessive secrecy in the name of national security.

Timeliness, expertise and flexibility must be watchwords as science strikes a balance between openness and prudence. The scientific editors have struck the right note. It is now up to the rest of the peaceful scientific community, both here and in centers of biological innovation abroad, to follow suit.

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