Freedom of speech shouldn't make free societies stupid. If scientific journals were to publish details of how to create a deadly virus – a manual, in effect, for terrorists and the deranged – they could set loose a hard-to-control danger in their midst. They would be acting contrary to their purposes, which are to promote public health. And so the request from a United States government advisory board that the journals, Science and Nature, not print all the details of a new experiment makes eminent sense.
Scientists in the United States and the Netherlands created a highly contagious mutation of the H5N1 avian-flu virus for a legitimate purpose: to find warning signs that a virus has the potential to create a pandemic. Such research carries obvious dangers. Surely the scientists do not leave their laboratory doors open to strangers, or talk over the back fence to neighbours about their research. They should show equal care when publishing their research results.
The publication of the research is intended to allow scientists to talk to one another. It is not meant for a mass audience. Scientists who are smart enough to mutate viruses can find other ways to share the details. Perhaps government can help them do so. The journals, thankfully, seem inclined to limit the published findings, if they receive help to disseminate the information in other ways.
The advisory board, set up in 2004 in response to concerns about bio-terror, has not asked before for such discretion, or self-censorship. Governments often try to keep information secret and their reasons are sometimes flimsy or self-serving. That does not appear to be the case this time.
Newspapers do not publish troop movements in war. Scientific journals should not print insider tips for mass killing. It would be ironic, and worse, horrifying, if research intended to help protect the world against the transmission of a deadly virus actually led to massive harm.
Free flow of scientific information is critical to the advancement of science. But not at any cost, not with eyes shut to the consequences.