American Society for Microbiology Cautions that Scientific Publication Restraints May Have Negative Impact on Public Health and Safety

Janet Shoemaker
Director, Scientific and Public Affairs

Washington, D.C.-October 10, 2002--The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) recognizes the legitimacy of concerns about the publication and dissemination of scientific information that could be misused by bioterrorists but cautions that stringent restraints on scientific publication may ultimately have a negative impact on public health and safety, ASM President Ronald M. Atlas, Ph.D., testified before the House Science Committee hearing on "Conducting Research During the War on Terrorism: Balancing Openness and Security."

The ASM agrees that we must deny scientific and technical information to terrorists and that we must enhance laboratory security. "However, if policy measures to prevent terrorists from acquiring pathogens, equipment and technical information are not crafted with great care, they may have a significantly adverse effect upon critically important research activities," he said. "National security may be best served by allowing free flow of all scientific and technical information that is not directly connected to technology deemed critical to national security." In the latter case, such information would continue to be classified, he noted.

The ASM, he said, seeks to achieve a proper balance between necessary security and vital scientific research and publications. As a publisher of 11 peer-reviewed journals, the ASM has adopted specific policies and procedures for careful scrutiny of manuscripts dealing with select agents, the organisms and toxins deemed most likely to pose a bioterrorism threat. The ASM will not publish papers that violate the ASM Code of Ethics or other standards, such as the NIH guidelines on recombinant DNA research.

However, ASM continues to require that research articles contain sufficient detail to permit the work to be repeated by others. "If scientists cannot assess and replicate the work of their colleagues, the very foundation of science is eroded," Atlas said. "Indeed, the risk to public health and safety may be greater from restricting research than from allowing the publication of research that could be read by a wrongdoer."

The best defense against anthrax or any other infectious disease is information, he said, that can be used by scientists and public representatives to guide rational and effective actions to ensure public safety. "Placing major barriers in the path of the flow of information ultimately may contribute to terrorism by interfering with our ability to prepare and respond to the threat of the misuse of science by bioterrorists," Atlas said.

We must recognize, he said, that scientific knowledge may have dual application, for beneficial or for malicious purposes. Research to make new drugs might be used to develop bioweapons. Genomic data that are valuable for identifying new drug and vaccine targets could also be used to increase the virulence of microbial agents or counter currently available therapies.

For these reasons, identifying "sensitive" information is difficult and complicated. "There is no common definition of what is dangerous or sensitive information, and no individual is empowered to decide what is potentially dangerous knowledge," Atlas said.

Responsible oversight and reasoned discussion are important at this critical juncture. At the request of the ASM, the National Academy of Sciences has agreed to convene a meeting of scientific publishers within the next few months. The meeting will focus on developing common policies regarding review and publication of manuscripts dealing with research that could present public safety issues and on identifying "sensitive" information and policies to screen information in a manner that will not interfere with or jeopardize research. "We feel that a self-imposed code of responsible conduct and oversight is preferable to a mandated regime," Atlas said.

Discussions among scientists on appropriate measures for security in undertaking and publishing research must also include the national security community, Atlas pointed out. "Both communities must share a common goal of discouraging the development of biological weapons while taking into account the traditional and necessary openness of scientific research."

"Ultimately," he said, "open and collaborative research is key to US technological advances and to the protection of our citizens against infectious disease and bioterrorism."

The complete testimony can be viewed at

Atlas is Dean of the Graduate School and Co-Director of the Center for the Deterrence of Biological Warfare and Bioterrorism at the University of Louisville.

The American Society for Microbiology is the largest single life science society, composed of over 42,000 scientists and health professionals worldwide. Its mission is to promote research and research training in the microbiological sciences and to assist communication between scientists, policy makers, and the public to improve health, the environment, and economic well-being.

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