Sunday, 2 November 2003
Scientific freedom in the age of bioterrorism
The Washington Post reports a sterling example of how scientific freedom should be preserved in this age of bioterrism. (Article: Engineered Virus Related to Smallpox Evades Vaccine) President Bush has categorized large swaths of research as either classified or "sensitive but unclassified" with the intent of controlling the direction of research and restricting the dissemination of knowledge gained therefrom. For all the reasons already argued in the two-year-old debate on these restrictions, this purported secrecy is doomed to fail and will retard responses to bioterror attacks. The research reported in this article, however, was conducted and disseminated scientifically, without any attempt at secrecy — yet also without compromising national security.
No, I do not suggest that an altered smallpox virus is without national security implications. The lead researcher, virologist Mark Buller of Saint Louis University, explains why he has "absolutely no biosafety issues" with his work:
Although he acknowledged that someone could, in theory, apply similar techniques to smallpox, he said he had no qualms about presenting his data at the Geneva meeting because his team had found two different ways of countering the enhanced virulence with drugs and vaccines, and is close to perfecting a third way.
This is precisely the sort of security disclosure (simultaneous exposure of problems and solutions) that has served the IT industry for decades.