Knowing Sin

One of the most famous quotations attributed to J. Robert Oppenheimer was made in a lecture he delivered at MIT in 1947, a little more than two years after the destruction caused by detonation of two atomic bombs in Japan to bring a decisive end to the second World War.  The more than 100,000 deaths that resulted from one of the best organized scientific projects in history still epitomize the potential that scientific activities have in providing tools for devastation.  Oppenheimer said:

Despite the vision and farseeing wisdom of our wartime heads of state, the physicists have felt the peculiarly intimate responsibility for suggesting, for supporting, and in the end, in large measure, for achieving the realization of atomic weapons.  Nor can we forget that these weapons as they were in fact used dramatized so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war.  In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.

J. Robert Oppenheimer

I was reminded of Oppenheimer earlier this month when the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (“NSABB”) made the decision to interfere with publication of scientific research in the name of security.  The NSABB is an advisory committee whose origins are found in the Committee on Research Standards and Practices to Prevent the Destructive Application of Biotechnology, convened by the National Academies in 2002 when the widespread fear precipitated by the anthrax attacks of 2001 was still fresh in people’s minds.  The so-called “Fink Report,” eponymously named after the chair of the Committee, included a number of recommendations intended to “ensure responsible oversight for biotechnology research with potential bioterrorism applications,” one of which was the creation of the NSABB.  A copy of the report can be found here.  The primary focus of the NSABB is oversight of “dual-use research,” i.e. biotechnology research that may have both legitimate scientific purposes and that may be misused to cause threats to public health.  In many ways, the comparison with nuclear research is apt because of the potential for nuclear research to find beneficial applications in power generation and medical imaging as well as its infamous destructive applications.

The action taken this month by the NSABB represents its first intrusion into the independent publication practices of scientific journals.  The issue is research on H5N1 bird-flu mutations by Dutch scientists that would allow considerably easier human transmission of the virus — which has mortality rates in the neighborhood of 60%.  While there is a fear of potential terrorist uses, there is no question that the research also has important public-health and viral-research implications.  In its press release, the Board noted that it had asked editors of Science and Nature, as well as the authors involved, to suppress what is, by any measure, information long viewed as essential to the need in scientific research to reproduce the results of others:  “[T]he NSABB recommended that the general conclusions highlighting the novel outcome be published, but that the transcripts not include the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm.”  A copy of the full press statement issued by the Board can be found here.

The whole notion of limiting access of details only to those who would not “seek to do harm” is, of course, problematic.  One need only recall the anthrax attacks of 2001, which in many ways provided the original impetus for formation of the NSABB itself.  During investigations of those attacks, the two individuals most prominently identified as the subjects of interest by federal prosecutors were U.S. biodefense researchers who had access to classified information.  Restriction on publication of information by journals like Science and Nature would have had no effect in preventing those attacks, but would still remove valid scientific information from the public archive.

Many viral scientists have objected to the move by the NSABB, characterizing it as a form of censorship, which it indeed is.  I admit to considerable sympathy with the views of those critics, and again turn to Oppenheimer, whose words capture the sentiment that most scientists share:

There must be no barriers to freedom of inquiry….  There is no place for dogma in science.  The scientist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any errors.  Our political life is also predicated on openness.  We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it and that the only way to detect it is to be free to inquire.  And we know that as long as men are free to ask what they must, free to say what they think, free to think what they will, freedom can never be lost, and science never regress.

Is this a hopelessly naïve and unrealistic view?  While I desperately wish it were not, and while I normally argue as passionately as I am able that science is better for its openness, I also have sober moments when I pause uncertainly.  I encourage those who wish to understand both sides of this particular issue to read the blog post by virologist Vincent Racaniello here, particularly the comment added by NSABB member Mike Imperiale.

As an attorney, I frequently find myself defending reports of jury decisions that strike much of the public as outlandish.  My usual response is that it is astonishingly presumptuous to suppose that spending five minutes reading a short news report of a verdict can in any way compare to the weeks of deliberation and examination of documents that caused twelve people to come to some agreement about the issue.  As I face my own initial distaste for suppression of legitimate scientific information, I think of the time that the members of NSABB presumably spent grappling with these issues and I am haunted by my own argument — they are far more knowledgeable about biology than I am and surely as sensitive to the need for science to operate in an atmosphere of openness.

Still, I expect that no matter how genuine their efforts to prevent it, it is merely matter of time until biologists know sin in the way physicists of the 1940’s did.

About Patrick Boucher

The author, Patrick M. Boucher, is a patent attorney living near Denver, Colorado and working at Marsh Fischmann & Breyfogle. He holds a Ph.D. in physics as well as a J.D. He is an active member of the American Physical Society, and is admitted to practice law in the states of Colorado and New York, as well as to practice before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. He is also a member of the Authors Guild and of the Colorado Authors League.