Anthrax? Censor It, Quick

Cavorting Beasties

What if Osama is reading the scientific literature? That’s the question the editors of some of the world’s top science journals asked each other at a meeting in January. They decided that al Qaeda might, in fact, be reading their journals and agreed to censor scientific research that could cause “potential harm” if it fell into the hands of terrorists. Although it appears that the editors were trying to protect the public by blocking sensitive research from being published, their motivations are much less pure. The journals are simply trying to protect themselves from government regulations. In the process, they will damage both the openness of scientific exchange and hinder the dissemination of information that could be used to prevent terrorist attacks.

In a rare joint statement published two weeks ago in Nature and Science Magazines and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a group calling itself the “Journal Editors and Authors Group” argued that “information published in research journals might give aid to those with malevolent ends.” The statement gave the obligatory bows to freedom of inquiry and the dissemination of information. But later on, it undermines these principle with an important caveat. If an editor decides “the potential harm of publication outweighs the potential societal benefits,” then such a scientific paper “should be modified, or not be published.” Donald Kennedy, the editor of Science, tried to defend this position by arguing that it “poses no radical policy departure.” Other scientists have argued that the statement is mere common sense, and is simply a restatement of what journals already do.

But these apologies miss the point. When compared to the strenuous objections leveled by the scientific community against a previous attempt to limit research on national security grounds, it becomes clear that the purpose of this statement was political, pure and simple. In October, the National Academies rebuked the Bush administration for trying to restrict the publication of “sensitive” science for security reasons. Now, scientists are urging the same sorts of restrictions they rejected so strongly five months ago. Instead of arguing on principle that knowledge is morally neutral, the Journal Editors and Authors Group accepted the government’s contention that “sensitive” research should be suppressed. Instead of a federal agent pulling the plug, it will be the editor of a journal. But the result in both cases is the same. Important information that could help scientists develop defenses to bioterrorism is suppressed because of the fear that such information could be used by al Qaeda.

Harvard scientists have also felt the pressure to avoid bumping up against the new ethos of secrecy and censorship. Presley Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics R. John Collier is one of the nation’s foremost anthrax researchers. He worked on anthrax for years before white powder in the mail became a national obsession. New federal laws regulating research on things such as anthrax led Collier to destroy his only samples of anthrax to “avoid attracting terrorists and more of the press than I wanted,” he told The New York Times in December. Collier’s case is just one example of how new restrictions and uncertainty can affect important research.

But the recent statement and the government pressure will do little to stop those who want to perpetrate acts of bioterrorism. For example, the statement by the Journal Editors and Authors Group allows scientists to communicate their findings at conferences and over the internet. Instead of reading about anthrax in Science Magazine, terrorists need only poke around the internet for the latest research. The information on how to make viruses, for example, will be available only to the most determined and patient searchers. Given the meticulous planning evident in past attacks, it seems al Qaeda has no shortage of patience. Moreover, if information about bioterrorism is hard to find, legitimate researchers will have a harder time finding ways to counter potential threats. Instead of stimulating more research, papers suppressed because they are “sensitive” will be of little use to scientists.

Open inquiry and the free exchange of information are some of the highest ideals of science. But the new motto of the government and the scientists who want to censor research should be “See no anthrax, breathe no anthrax.” The Internet makes complete censorship impossible. By naively assuming that their journals are the main places where terrorists will get their information, journal editors are doing a great disservice both to science and to the public. Suppressing information does not make it disappear.

After all, the anthrax you do not know about is the anthrax that will kill you.

Jonathan H. Esensten ’04 is a biochemical sciences concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.