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Last Updated

06 Feb 2003

Source: Washington Post, February 6, 2003

Scientists Face Security Dilemma

Need for Openness, Secrecy Debated Amid Bioterror Threat

By Guy Gugliotta, Washington Post Staff Writer

In the late 1990s, the University of Pennsylvania's Ariella Rosengard made a protein from the smallpox virus to help her investigate the microbe's ability to evade the human immune system. She found that the protein was much better at attacking humans than other species.

Rosengard was looking for ways to help the immune system cope with transplants, but when her work appeared last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it gained attention for very different reason: She had built and used part of the germ that has arguably caused more deaths from disease than any other in human history.

In a nation consumed by the threat of bioterrorism, was it prudent to publish how she had done it?

Yes, said Cambridge University's P.J. Lachmann in a commentary that accompanied the Rosengard article: "The work is far more likely to stimulate advances in vaccinology or viral therapy than it is to threaten biosecurity."

Perhaps, but not everyone agrees. For nearly a year, a Bush administration nervous about national security has been designing restrictions on the dissemination of what it calls "homeland security information that is sensitive but unclassified."

The administration has not figured out just what information would fit this description, but scientists -- particularly microbiologists -- "have become more worried and confused," said David Goldston, chief of staff of the House Science Committee, which has tried to serve as an honest broker in the debate. "Everything is still in a state of flux."

It is a difficult dilemma. Scientists say their work can advance only through full and open communication and the ability to test and replicate each other's work. But in a dangerous world, some of what scientists publish might be used to cause harm on a vast scale.

Microbiologists know this, and after the anthrax attacks in late 2001, they themselves were quick to raise questions about the material they were publishing. Many said controls might be needed, but not if they were going to be imposed from above.

"We would prefer a self-policing regime," said microbiologist Ronald Atlas, graduate school dean at the University of Louisville and president of the American Society for Microbiology. "Imposing criminal penalties would have a chilling effect on the free exchange of information."

Last month, the National Academy of Sciences and the Center for Strategic and International Studies convened a one-day workshop to discuss "Scientific Openness and National Security" and to open a dialogue between the government and the life sciences.

White House science adviser John H. Marburger acknowledged in a speech that "science is a social activity," and he endorsed openness, but he also warned that "disease can be used as a weapon" and that "society expects its government to take reasonable steps against bioterrorism."

The government is considering the idea of issuing of "guidance" on "how to handle and disseminate homeland security information," said Shana Dale, chief of staff and general counsel for Marburger's White House Office on Science and Technology Policy. It is not yet clear what kinds of information would be affected by such an initiative.

"The intention is to focus on federally controlled information," Dale said. "The guidance is in the discussion stages," she added, with no indication when it might be published.

Dale said, however, that the administration is "encouraging universities to self-police." The Office of Management and Budget, charged with writing the guidance, has issued a statement describing its intent to "very narrowly target" a "very small subset of government information."

Overall, the atmosphere thus far has been conciliatory.

"My own sense is that we've caught it early enough, so we are on the right track," National Academy of Sciences President Bruce Alberts said. "We need to be on the same team with the security folks instead of in opposition."

Concern about the potential misuse of life sciences research escalated quickly after the anthrax attacks.

"Many scientists were working with government, and they were worried about what they could or could not publish," said Atlas, whose group publishes 11 scientific journals. "We heard a lot of concern that we really needed to do something."

Since 1985, the government's position on publishing scientific information has been articulated by a Reagan-era National Security Decision Directive stating that "to the maximum extent possible, the products of fundamental research be unrestricted." In the case of information that poses a national security risk, specific materials would be classified as "confidential," "secret" or "top secret."

It was apparent to many experts in both science and security, however, that the nuclear security concerns that prompted the 1985 directive were far different from the dangers posed by biological warfare agents.

A nuclear weapons program requires an enormous infrastructure investment that individuals or small organizations cannot undertake. Biological weapons also require sophisticated technicians but need relatively little equipment. In this environment, many scientists agreed, information could be more important than infrastructure.

But while this consideration might argue for more secrecy, many biologists also noted that developing effective biodefenses demands greater openness. Rosengard's research may be sensitive, but other scientists must have access to it to counter biological threats.

"The public must know about this -- I am adamant," said microbiologist Eckard Wimmer of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. "Only then can we prepare ourselves."

Wimmer earned instant notoriety last year for leading a team that synthesized the polio virus from ordinary chemicals, reporting his results in the online journal Science Express.

His message was that "in 10 years it may be rather easy to synthesize viruses, and we need to be prepared for that," Wimmer said. "The government has provided generous funding for anti-terror, and it will be up to the scientific community to use it for antiviral drugs and vaccines."

The problem of "dual use" crops up all the time in microbiological research, said University of Texas Medical School microbiologist Sam Kaplan, chairman of the microbiology society's publication board. "There are no smoking guns in biology. Everything's done incrementally, building on the work of those who have gone before."

Late in 2001, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice allayed scientists' early concerns by endorsing the Reagan-era formulation, but last March, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. issued a memo to Cabinet members and agency chiefs not to "disclose inappropriately" government information related to weapons of mass destruction. He also created a category of "sensitive but unclassified" information that could not be disseminated.

The Card directive appeared aimed primarily at getting agencies to pull from the public domain information that could be used by terrorists -- locations of chemical plants, pipeline diagrams and the like.

"That was certainly the core of it," said David Heyman, director of science and security for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "But that's a little flat. They also had to decide if there is a methodology that we can put in place so that publishing information can't hurt us."

Shortly after the Card directive, Atlas and other concerned scientists met with OMB representatives, who told them that any effort to codify the Card pronouncement would focus on government-owned information only.

"That lowered my concern," Atlas said, "but others were more concerned. They wanted to know what do they [the government] own, and what are they going to try to own?" Government and universities collaborate and overlap in countless ways.

Since then, scientists have grappled with the question of what should be done. Massachusetts Institute of Technology aeronautical engineer Sheila Widnall, a former secretary of the Air Force, dismissed the notion of "sensitive but unclassified" as a "slippery slope."

"Who defines it?" she asked. "I have no question that there are some things that should be classified," she added, but the standard classification regime should suffice.

The microbiology society appears more flexible. Kaplan said editors early on refused to publish articles with "sensitive" parts blacked out. Instead, editors are reviewing manuscripts and, if they have national security concerns, are urging authors to modify them before publication or withdraw them. Two of 14,000 manuscripts have received this treatment so far, he said.

But Kaplan, like Wimmer, said the best answer to bioterrorism is aggressive public science that finds solutions faster than terrorists can pose problems: "The one thing we have going for us is an infrastructure in biomedical research which is far ahead of the ability of the bad guys to use it," he said.