The onward progress of science is the latest casualty of the war on terror. On Feb. 15, a meeting was held in Denver between more than 20 of the nation’s leading scientific journals – most notably the internationally-renowned journals Science, Nature, and The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. At this conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the editors of the journals came to an agreement in which they agreed not to publish articles that could be deemed a threat to national security. The main area of study affected will be the biomedical field because of the threat of bio-terrorism.
This self-censorship is believed to stem from several threats from Washington, specifically a Jan. 9 conference on “Scientific Openness and National Security. The editors thought that by imposing sanctions on themselves first, they would prevent Washington from putting even more restrictive sanctions into effect. In their attempt to placate Washington on national security issues, these editors may hamper important, future scientific research.
While the editors of these prestigious magazines may be trying to cope with practical concerns in implementing these restrictions, little good can come of these self-imposed regulations. It is within the realm of possibility that this policy could prevent a terrorist from getting her hands on sensitive information, but it is also likely that scientists will continue to publish the results of their biomedical research other scientific journals.
Despite the reality that the results of their research can still be published, scientists will have less of an incentive to do this research because it will not be published in the most prestigious journals. These journals are the lifeblood of the scientific community. An academic’s career prospects often depend on whether or not he can get published or not in a well-respected journal.
One of the main problems addressed at this conference is that of how to define a threat to national security. The editors will make this decision alone. This puts a tremendous amount of power into the hands of only a few people. This small group of people will be making decisions on national security issues – issues on which these editors most likely have very little expertise.
Any form of restriction on research of dangerous pathogens is the first step down a slippery slope. First, these editors may ban material related to national security. This may lead to demands for restriction of other materials, such as genomic information on relatively harmless viruses like the common cold. In short, this decision may have unforeseen consequences. For example, if researchers are discouraged from studying how a biological weapon works, then it is less likely that we will be adequately prepared for that threat.
Restricting this cutting-edge research is futile. It is impossible to fight terrorism with ignorance – it must be fought with knowledge. The most likely result of this decision will be to hurt the advancement of science without controlling the proliferation of dangerous information.