Sample Opinion Column

Research on “sensitive” topics: Publish or perish
Jane Doe, University of Kansas, 2003

This column will not tell you how to make a bioweapon. This column will not provide instruction in making germs more deadly, or in manufacturing brand-new viruses from materials ordered off the internet.

If you are interested in that information, try looking in Anschutz Library, or in Dykes Library on the Medical Center campus. Articles on both those topics were published in journals carried by KU libraries in the past year.

While we fret about whether biological weapons will ever be found in Iraq, some of the basic information needed to produce them is easy to find. It’s as close as the library, or your campus high-speed internet connection. Because when scientists do research—about songbirds or quarks or super-deadly strains of anthrax—they publish their results in scientific journals, accessible to all. So anyone with a copy card can get her own printout of a report on, for instance, why some strains of anthrax are deadlier than others. And that’s a good thing.

Sharing information among researchers is central to the scientific method. When an experiment is published by one set of researchers, it can be repeated by others to verify its results. Such independent replication is one of the key reasons why science has been so successful in increasing our understanding of the world. Additionally, published experimental results inspire the scientists reading them with new ideas for original research. Future projects build on past efforts, but only if research is made available to anyone who is interested. That’s equally true of science regarding songbirds, or quarks, or deadly bacteria.

But this kind of scientific openness has come under attack since September 11, and particularly since the anthrax mailings of October 2001. Well-meaning politicians, ignorant of the importance of openness to the scientific method, have pressed for laws banning the publication of “sensitive” research—research that lawmakers think could aid terrorists in producing weapons of mass destruction. Already, the USA PATRIOT Act restricts scientists’ access to some materials. And researchers applying for federal grants can now be told, after the grant is approved, that they are forbidden to publish their findings.
Scientific journals have also begun more carefully policing their own content. This February, new international standards for publishing sensitive research were unveiled at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which produces the journal Science.

At this meeting, Ronald Atlas, the president of the American Society for Microbiology—which publishes several top microbiology journals—observed that keeping the knowledge to make bioweapons away from terrorists was not a task that could be accomplished by one nation alone. It also can’t be done by lawmakers.

Politicians lack the comprehension of science necessary to determine what research would be both useful to terrorists and useless to scientists. Security-obsessed lawmakers are especially deficient in understanding that virtually “any work of value to terrorists will also be of value in countering terrorism,” as editor-in-chief of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Nicholas Cozzarelli recently opined.

To paraphrase a National Rifle Association bumper sticker, when data is outlawed only outlaws will have data. And that’s a bad thing, especially if the data regards “sensitive” subjects. Banning the publication of security-sensitive research doesn’t prevent terrorists from getting their hands on it, but it does keep law-abiding scientists—the ones we count to fight terrorism—from having the information they need.

Many KU scientists—students like myself included—conduct research that could be classified as “sensitive” and barred from publication under new laws. Research not shared with others is pointless, and will not be done.

We must not allow the hysteria brought about by September 11 to bring a halt to the scientific enlightenment that has created the modern world.

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