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To be safe, the scientists are already censoring themselves

After September 11 and the anthrax scare, scientists in the US are debating what the limits of scientific publication are. The American Academy of Sciences will hold a conference of publishers of biomedical journals to discuss whether to limit the publication of research that may aid hostile states and terrorist organizations; Congress is considering new regulations

Tamara Traubman

With the growing fear in Western countries of biological weapons being used against them, government officials and scientists began to question whether restrictions should not be imposed on the publication of research findings that could be used to develop non-conventional weapons. "This is a new approach, which we have not encountered before," said the president of the American Society for Microbiology Dr. Ronald Atlas in an interview published this month in the scientific journal "Science" about information from basic research in the academic system - from the publication of bacterial genomes to the conduct of experiments - not previously imposed Prohibitions".

Scientists have so far deciphered the genomes of dozens of bacteria and viruses, some of which, such as tuberculosis and smallpox, can cause serious diseases. They even uploaded to a website all the information of the chain of DNA units of these pathogens (causing diseases). The site) ( is available to all for free. In recent years there have also been some significant developments in the field of genetics and genetic engineering and scientists have learned a lot about genes that give bacteria lethal properties, and how to change the properties of the bacteria through Engineering This information has also been published in great detail in scientific journals, most of which today also have electronic editions.

The publication of research findings is one of the basic rules of scientific research: a scientist makes a discovery, brings it to the attention of the scientific community, thus giving an opportunity to other scientists to try to reproduce the results of the research, give them validity, and continue to build additional layers on the acquired knowledge.

However, the events of September 11 followed by the anthrax scare put these rules in a new light. Now scientists and politicians are asking themselves whether the publication of scientific findings should be delayed in the name of national security. The debate is especially fierce in the United States, which is still struggling to find the senders of the anthrax envelopes. But even in countries like Israel, says Hermona Sorek, professor of molecular biology, scientists are debating out loud about the negative consequences that sensitive information may have.

In the research she did, Prof. Sorek found that there are humans with a genetic structure that may make them particularly vulnerable to chemical warfare. "The importance of the findings is cardinal even in times of peace," says Prof. Sorek, who decided to publish them. She says that toxic insecticides are very similar to chemical warfare agents, and it is important that those genetically vulnerable to them know this. According to her, "Not publishing is a double-edged sword: you don't publish, but you also don't know what the other party doesn't publish. And the fact is (that during the Cold War) the Russians advanced in a very significant way without it being announced in the West. It only became clear when scientists from there started coming to us with a great deal of knowledge, which never appeared in the literature."

About a month ago, Dr. Eckerd Wimer and his colleagues from the State University of New York reported that they had succeeded in creating a polio virus in the laboratory. The researchers constructed the bacterium based on the sequence of its DNA units, which was downloaded from the Internet, and with the help of DNA segments obtained by mail from a company (one of many) that supplies materials to laboratories. This success required the researchers to work for many years and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars (the funding was provided by the US Department of Defense). But the publication provoked a fierce debate on the question of whether the researchers should have published their findings - or even avoided conducting the study at all.

Following the publication of the study, eight Republican members of Congress submitted a proposed resolution criticizing the publisher of "Science," which published the study, for publishing "an outline plan that may allow terrorists to produce pathogens cheaply." The decision also calls on federal agencies that fund research to reconsider how research is classified.

In addition, the American Society for Microbiology, an organization that represents approximately 40 scientists and publishes 11 journals, asked the American Academy of Sciences to hold a conference of publishers of biomedical journals, to discuss whether and how to publish research that could help organizations and countries hostile to the United States . The conference will be held in the fall.

According to Dr. Atlas, president of the Society for Microbiology, the editors of the society's journals have received "several dozens of inquiries" from scientists who are afraid to publish their work in full. According to him, they reply to applicants that partial articles will not be published. But in at least one case a censored study was published: a report on smallpox was sent to the Journal of Clinical Microbiology by Thomas Smith, director of the laboratory of virology at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, and his colleagues from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

The study, funded by the Mayo Clinic, describes the rapid identification of smallpox using a small segment of genetic sequence. After the article was received, Smith said, federal employees he declined to identify raised concerns. They were afraid that terrorists would change part of the sequence to slow down the detection of the virus during an attack. Smith's group agreed to omit important details, and the journal published an abridged version of the study in June. Such attempts, Atlas said, prompted the company to request a meeting of the National Academy of Sciences.

At the same time, Congress is debating new regulations that will prohibit certain people from working in laboratories engaged in the research of "dangerous bacteria and viruses". This is a huge number of laboratories, ranging from laboratories that study pathogens related to biological warfare such as anthrax and smallpox to laboratories that study bacteria such as E. coli, which can cause stomach poisoning. The USDA has already closed its doors to foreign scientists. In April, the heads of the Ministry's Research Division sent a circular to all employees, instructing them not to approve new applications for granting entry visas to researchers, as well as not to approve applications for visa extensions. The department employs hundreds of researchers in the fields of agriculture and plant biotechnology, of which about 200 are foreign scientists and students.

According to Prof. Hagit Messer-Yeron, the chief scientist of the Ministry of Science, the public debate on the issue actually began many years ago - it can be traced back to Alfred Nobel who in 1866 discovered dynamite. After seeing how his scientific discovery was used for war purposes, he founded the prize named after him.

Prof. Messer-Yeron divides the restrictions on the publication of research into three levels: "A person may impose restrictions on the publication of his research and even has to take responsibility for his actions. I have no problem with that. On the second level there is a situation where some party asks a scientist to limit his publications. Here too, as long as the scientist is really given the right to choose, I don't think there is a problem. At the third level, there is censorship by virtue of law or regulations, which imposes restrictions on publications, and I strongly oppose this."

But even before any official restrictions were set, some scientists had already begun to censor the findings of their research. For example, at the end of last year, researchers from the "Institute for Genomic Research" in Maryland, USA, deciphered the anthrax genome. The research was not classified and was not funded by a security agency; Despite this, the researchers decided to delay the publication of the data and transfer it to the federal authorities. "The National Science Foundation, which financed the research, actually encouraged us to publish the information," said Dr. Claire Fraser, director of the center, at the time. "But I will feel uncomfortable until the FBI and its research teams can go through the data. There is nothing to hide, but I want everyone to feel that we are acting responsibly." In May of this year, large parts of the research were published in the scientific literature.

Suddenly scientists expand their interests beyond the confines of the laboratory and enlist in the American security system. Dr. Fraser and Dr. Malcolm Dando, from the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom, wrote in the journal "Nature Genetics" The biomedical community has to play its role in creating a real deterrent network. To do less than this means that the events of September 11 will return on an even larger scale, through the misuse of science and technology that we created for peaceful purposes."

Some scientists fear that complete sequences of pathogen genomes, which are now publicly available, will serve as potential clues to people who want to develop biological weapons and allow them to develop ways to increase the lethality of pathogens. However, the exact same information may also be useful in developing treatments or ways to locate the source of the attack. "The moment you blocked the publication, you also blocked the possibility of developing treatments and preventive measures," says Prof. Messer-Yeron, "everything has the other side."

* The knowledge site was until the end of 2002 part of the IOL portal of the Haaretz group

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