Secure line. Audience members queue up to voice ideas at yesterday's conference on science and security.

Scientists Must Take Lead on Security

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Bioscientists need to take the lead on developing voluntary controls on disclosing sensitive findings--or risk having the government impose restrictive rules. That was the message that prominent scientists and secrecy experts delivered yesterday at a workshop here on scientific openness and national security. The meeting, sponsored by the U.S. National Academies, was prompted by fears that scientists are publishing papers that could help terrorists develop deadly bioweapons.

U.S. security experts have long been concerned that increasingly common biological research tools, from gene splicing to the mass production of novel chemicals, could be used for evil. Worries grew after the 2001 anthrax attacks, when several major scientific journals published papers that critics said could provide adversaries with tips on how to build better bioweapons. Some members of Congress then suggested that the government bar such research and "sensitive" publications (ScienceNOW, 29 July 2002).

At the meeting, speakers agreed that defining "sensitive" information is difficult. But the editors of several major journals--including Science--said they have developed new guidelines for reviewing papers that raise security concerns. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, for instance, has given special scrutiny to about 20 papers in recent months, but all were approved. "We think we will know [information that shouldn't be published] when we see it, but so far we haven't seen it," said Nick Cozzarelli, the journal's editor.

But government officials said clearer rules are needed. The lack of "articulated and defensible criteria for what constitutes appropriate science" could lead the government to impose "onerous and ineffective" rules, warned physicist Parnell Albright, who has been examining the issue for the White House offices of Homeland Security and Science and Technology Policy. "The scientific community needs to get its act together or someone is going to do it for them," he said.

To help hammer out a definition of taboo bioscience, the academies and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, will bring top science and security leaders together for informal discussions. And journal editors began meeting today to fine-tune their rules. Scientists, meanwhile, should be asking themselves if their work would help a terrorist, says Gerald Epstein, a security expert with the Institute for Defense Analysis in Alexandria, Virginia. One test: "How would you like your paper to be found in a cave in Afghanistan with sections highlighted in yellow?" he asks.

Related sites
National Academies Statement on Science and Security
National Academies Background Paper

Posted in Scientific Community