DENVER - February 15, 2003 -- "The scientific community is beginning to come together to establish norms for information communication in the age of bioterrorism," Dr. Ronald Atlas, president of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), said at a symposium, "Biosecurity-Science in the Balance," at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). "This is a work in progress, however, " he emphasized, "and we will have to continually seek to improve the process and more specifically define what sort of information might constitute a dangerous 'cookbook.'"
Atlas released a statement from journal editors and authors affirming the benefits of open publication but also acknowledging that there is information that presents enough risks of use by terrorists that it should not be published.
"In the aftermath of terrorist and anthrax attacks, we in the life sciences community must live with greater restrictions on the conduct of our science. The USA Patriot Act, for example, in effect since October 2001, places restriction on possession of the particularly virulent microorganisms and toxins known as select agents. The Biopreparedness Act requires registration for possession of select agents, security clearances for access, and security and reporting systems when working with these agents," Atlas said.
The fear that information from such research may fall into the wrong hands is causing great anxiety within the scientific community and uncertainties among the public and policy makers regarding how to balance national security with traditional openness of science, he said. "It is up to us in the scientific community to define the standards and to establish the framework to ensure that critical information is withheld from terrorists while permitting the continued advancement of biomedical research and the protection of public health."
However, he emphasized, "We cannot do this alone. The scientific and national security communities must establish a dialog and the outcome must be acceptable to the public. This process needs to begin by defining what is sensitive and then move to considering how best to protect that information," Atlas said, "going beyond classification to ethically responsible citizenship."The statement from the Journal Editors and Authors Group resulted from a meeting hosted by the ASM on January 10, 2003, to assess what steps journals might take to help protect against the misuse of life science information for bioterrorism. This meeting of editors, author-scientists, and government representatives followed a January 9, 2003 workshop at the National Academy of Sciences, convened at the request of the ASM, considering issues in balancing the traditional openness of publication in the life sciences with national security concerns. The workshop was cosponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. These meetings were attended by editors and authors representing a spectrum of life science publishing and included international publishers. "The U.S. cannot act in isolation," Atlas said.
Furthermore, although microbiology has been at the vanguard of concern, future developments in biotechnology will extend concern to other areas of the life sciences. "The statement issued by the editors and authors indicates that a proactive response is needed that is tailored to the needs of each discipline," he said. "The peer review system is an ideal means of allowing the community of sciences to monitor developments in each field and to judge the possible risks associated with scientific advances."
As a publisher of 11 peer-reviewed journals in the microbiological sciences, the ASM is on the front lines in dealing with publication of information that could be misused, Atlas pointed out. For this reason, the ASM Publication Board has adopted policies and procedures for dealing with any manuscript that may describe misuse of microbiology or of information derived from microbiology. Reviewers alert editors, who then alerts the Editor in Chief. The Editor in Chief contacts the Chair of the ASM Publications Board, and the entire board may be involved in the disposition of the manuscript.
ASM publication policy also requires that research articles must contain sufficient detail to permit the work to be repeated by others, and authors must agree to supply materials in accordance with laws and regulations governing the shipment, transfer, possession, and use of biological materials and that such supply be for legitimate research needs.
During the period 2001-2002, 14,000 manuscripts were submitted to the ASM journals. Of these, 224 dealt with select agents. Of these, 90 were rejected-57 with non-US authors. There were 134 accepted-58 with non-US authors. Among these, 2 (<0.015%) elicited elevated concern. Each was considered by the entire Publications Board and they are to be published with modification, Atlas reported.
The American Society for Microbiology is the largest single life science society, composed of over 42,000 scientists and health professionals. 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.