H5N1 research censorship 'problematic'
Published: 2nd May 2012 18:01:25
The editor of the world-leading scientific journal Nature says current procedures to assess and censor medical research potentially of use to terrorists need to be improved.
Dr Philip Campbell made his remarks to BBC News following the publication of controversial research into the bird flu virus H5N1.
Two research papers have raised the concern of anti-terrorist agencies.
One was submitted to Nature; the other to another leading journal, Science.
The Science paper has yet to appear.
Both pieces of research show that the H5N1 virus can relatively easily mutate into a form that might spread rapidly among the human population.
The studies had prompted the US National Security Advisory Board for Biotechnology (NSABB) to ask both journals last November to take out some sensitive parts of the research that it believed could be used by terrorists to develop a bio-weapon.
Many in the scientific community, including the researchers concerned, argued that the benefits of publishing the research in full outweighed the risks.
The purpose of the work was to help those trying to develop a vaccine against the virus and to track the spread of the disease. Many also considered it a breach of academic freedom.
The NSABB urged that a way be found to make deleted material available to legitimate researchers.
How do you decide which researchers should get the sensitive information. And how can you realistically ensure that once it is in a University environment that it wont go further?”
Discussions mediated by the World Health Organization earlier this year, however, concluded that there was no practical way of doing this, at least on a reasonable timescale, and so both Journals decided to publish the research.
Speaking for the first time on the issue, Dr Campbell said that the current process for establishing whether medical research should be censored was "very, very problematic".
"If we are to go down the censorship route, how do you decide which researchers should get the sensitive information? And how can you realistically ensure that once it is in a university environment that it won't go further?"
He also believes that the NSABB was too hasty to recommend censorship of the research.
"The process was too closed. People were having conversations only by phone and there was insufficient consultation of the researchers and of other experts," Dr Campbell told me.
So what's the best way to handle such a situation if it ever crops up again?
Dr Campbell believes that the NSABB and the WHO should continue to play an important role, but also he says that it's the responsibility of journal editors such as himself to consult the views of the community and the security agencies.
"We have access to the very best advice in such circumstances. I would also be willing to consider a more formal and collective process," he said.
"I can't readily conceive of how that might work in practice, but I'm happy to do anything that makes science more trusted where dangerous organisms are concerned."
Follow Pallab on Twitter
At 21:02:53 in HeadlinesAn assistant of American painter Jasper Johns has pleaded guilty to selling artworks worth $6.5m (£3.9m) he stole from the artist's studio
At 20:44:59 in EnglandEngineers say the underlying condition of Southampton's Central Bridge is much worse than originally thought, prolonging repair work.
At 20:39:18 in EnglandAn inspection has revealed a Dorset prison still has problems with drugs, legal highs and the treatment of people with mental health difficulties.
At 20:37:12 in WorldThe US is considering making aid drops to Shia Turkmen in northern Iraq who are under siege from Islamic State (IS) militants, US defence sources say.
At 20:27:09 in EnglandA man has been arrested in Birmingham after he was found hiding behind the air spoiler of a lorry that had travelled from Calais, police said.
At 20:17:33 in EnglandHundreds of drivers had their licences revoked in the West Midlands because their eyesight was too poor, according to figures from the DVLA.
At 20:09:02 in HeadlinesBy artificially activating circuits in the brain, scientists have turned negative memories into positive ones.
At 19:56:46 in HeadlinesThe mother of Steven Sotloff, a US journalist being held by Islamic State (IS) militants, has made an emotional video appeal for his release.
At 19:48:34 in EnglandWater voles have returned to every county in England following a reintroduction programme in Cornwall, the Environment Agency has said.
At 19:26:37 in EnglandTwo men have been arrested in connection with suspected child prostitution, following an investigation into an escort agency.
Harvard CitationBBC News, 2012. H5N1 research censorship 'problematic' [Online] (Updated 2nd May 2012)
Available at: http://www.ukwirednews.com/news/1426117/H5N1-research-censorship-problematic [Accessed 27th Aug 2014]
News In Other Categories
The UK is to give an extra £10m in humanitarian aid to Iraqis displaced by the conflict in the country.
Eating tomatoes may lower the risk of prostate cancer, research suggests.
HP has ordered a worldwide recall of power cords that had been sold with its laptop computers and other accessories, including docking stations.
An assistant of American painter Jasper Johns has pleaded guilty to selling artworks worth $6.5m (£3.9m) he stole from the artist's studio
A Virgin Atlantic passenger aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing at Edinburgh Airport after suffering a loss of cabin pressure shortly after take-off.
Sting has announced two concerts to help celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Sage Gateshead arts venue.