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Biotech Censorship United States Science

Researchers, Biosecurity Board Debate How Open Virus Research Should Be 66

New submitter rackeer writes "Exchanging research results is at the heart of the scientific method. However, there are concerns about whether investigations of pandemics, which possibly constitute a threat to the whole population of earth, should be shared. The debate about research on the avian flu was discussed on Slashdot before. Now the main parties have their own two cents to say. On-line at the journal Science are commentaries both by authors of the paper in question, who went ahead with the publication, and by the national advisory board for biosecurity, which advised against publishing."
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Researchers, Biosecurity Board Debate How Open Virus Research Should Be

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  • by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Friday February 10, 2012 @07:45PM (#39001511) Homepage

    Another interesting quote:

    The life sciences have reached a crossroads. The direction we choose and the process by which we arrive at this decision must be undertaken as a community and not relegated to small segments of government, the scientific community, or society. Physicists faced a similar situation in the 1940s with nuclear weapons research, and it is inevitable that other scientific disciplines will also do so.

    Sure worked for limiting nuclear weapons proliferation. Actually, it didn't, of course. The big difference between nuclear physics and biology is that the latter is thought to require less infrastructure than the former. This would make it more likely that a non state actor / random psychopath millionaire could obtain the needed equipment and skill set and go off to terrorize the world.

    While likely true - a couple of million dollars could by you a nice lab and the post doctoral level talent to run it - it's not clear that you could appreciably slow down research by simply not posting experimental details. Once you post the results, the details can be left as an exercise for the student. If you decide to limit research entirely you risk being blind sided by someone who hasn't been so constrained.

  • by meerling ( 1487879 ) on Friday February 10, 2012 @07:50PM (#39001575)
    Science is progressing at a reasonable pace BECAUSE scientists share data, results, ideas, etc. If you limit or remove that capability, you will be wiping out a large portion of the creative and lateral thinking that often leads to new methods, as well as create much more waste of resources due to duplication of effort. And when you are dealing with something that involves infection rates, you really want MORE research on it, how else can you gain the knowledge to apply to real situations.

    Can something like this be used in a combat or terrorist situation? Yes, but it can also be used to develop countermeasures as well. Besides, there isn't any invention of mankinds that wasn't used to further the ways and means of violence. Medicine, to keep your troops healthy and useful. Food Preservation, to conquer foreign lands. (In fact, that's why Napoleon paid people to develop it.), Vehicles and other means of transportation, you have to get your troops their. HIghways and roads, you have to get them their quickly. (Both the USA and the Roman Empire built their major roads for that purpose, the boost to trade was just a favorable byproduct.), etc.

    So if you want to ban research from being shared among the scientists in that field just because it might be used for non-peaceful purposes, then you'll just have to ban everything. And hey, once you've thrown a tablecloth over one genie lamp, it gets a lot easier to justify doing it again. After all, it's just one more...
  • by Un pobre guey ( 593801 ) on Friday February 10, 2012 @08:15PM (#39001807) Homepage

    This "controversy" is largely driven by War on Terror scammers who want to 1) set up a bureaucratic lobbyist-driven police state gravy train, and 2) loot the treasury using War on Terror hype as a pretext, much as they have done with Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Iran. If you think that it is a new phenomenon to use the results of scientific research for nefarious purposes, or that the only major precedent is nuclear arms proliferation you are quite mistaken. Next time you have a few hours of free time and are near a university chemistry library with a hard-copy of Chemical Abstracts that goes back 100 years or so, I highly recommend browsing through it looking for the nastiest substances you can think of. They're in there, recipes and all.

    We really need to stop believing all that horse shit just because some pompous windbag politician says it's true. Scientists, who know the literature, are justifiably reticent to cooperate with that crap unless their political aspirations demand it.

  • by Daniel Dvorkin ( 106857 ) on Friday February 10, 2012 @08:48PM (#39002025) Homepage Journal

    A great deal of modern science comes from the practice of alchemy, which begat chemistry and (less directly) biology. And a lot of what alchemists did looked like what modern scientists do: they had laboratories, they did experiments, they weighed and measured and otherwise quantified their results, they developed theories consistent with their observations. Similarly, modern astronomy and much of physics grew out of the work of astrologers, who, although they obviously couldn't experiment on the subjects of their observation, did take precise, repeated measurements of the apparent motions of celestial bodies, and developed mathematically rigorous models with considerable predictive power.

    So what distinguishes the alchemist or astrologer from the modern scientist? The sharing of knowledge. Alchemy and astrology spread knowledge, if at all, by the apprenticeship system, in which well-respected practicioners would take on a small number of apprentices, swear them to secrecy, and slowly teach them the secrets of (their particular version of) the art, often with considerable penalties for revealing this knowledge to anyone outside the circle; the apprentices would then do the same in turn. The very idea of anything like the modern system of peer-reviewed, widely disseminated publication would have been anathema to them. The walls started to crumble during the late Renaissance period and were more or less completely down by the mid-eighteenth century, and thus modern science was born.

    Since then we've seen incremental improvements, of which the internet and open access -- fought tooth and nail by certain journal publishers, who used to be allies of the scientist's labor of spreading knowledge, but have now become the last gatekeepers of the alchemical worldview -- are among the most recent and the most successful. But the basic idea is centuries old. It's thoroughly tested, and it works, in a way that the old mysticism, for all its occasional brilliance, never could. And any attempt to drag us back to the days of sages locking up their knowledge behind guild walls must be fought tooth and nail, or science itself will be in danger.

  • by Phernost ( 899816 ) on Friday February 10, 2012 @10:07PM (#39002453)

    It's the excuse that is inexcusable. Anyone who wishes to make use of this, or other research, has to have a lab and funding, whether nefarious or not. If you have that level of resources, you can bribe people, infiltrate, recreate the research from scratch, etc. Pretending that hiding the information from general scientific publication is a form of security is delusional at best and intellectually dishonest at worst.

  • by Un pobre guey ( 593801 ) on Friday February 10, 2012 @10:12PM (#39002469) Homepage

    I get your point, but I suspect you are missing mine. Forget nuclear weapons, they are a red herring in the current discussion. It is a huge stretch of the imagination to expect that "terrorists" can cause a pandemic with virus genetically engineered in a lab. It is far too expensive and there are myriad factors that decelerate pandemics, which is why they are so rare. More to my point, that there is plenty of knowledge already accumulated over several generations, "terrorists" would be better off getting virus samples from several origins in the field (e.g. pig and chicken farms) and crossing them in Third World pig and chicken ranches at random, the more strains mixed in the better. That would eventually yield highly infectious strains by ordinary natural selection. They could then harvest samples from locations where the most people got cross infected and do it again, iterating until they have some suitably nasty specimens. Scientific censorship is a moot point. More than enough information is out there for all sorts of mischief, whether nuclear, biological, or chemical (NBC). This "controversy" is plain old propaganda for the purposes of political manipulation, career advancement, and corruption, nothing more. We should stop believing this shit.

    Also, don't underestimate the stuff in Chemical Abstracts and related sources.

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