Thank you for inviting the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) and the International Union of Microbiology Societies (IUMS) to participate and present remarks on the professional responsibilities of scientists at the 2005 BWC Experts Meeting in Geneva. The ASM position will be presented first followed by comments from the IUMS.
The American Society for Microbiology is the largest single life science society in the world with over 43,000 members (over 20% international) who are involved in basic, applied and clinical research and testing. The Society has a diverse membership which is employed by academic institutions, industry, clinical laboratories, and government agencies. The Society publishes 11 journals, including Infection and immunity, Journal of Bacteriology and Journal of Virology, and holds three major scientific meetings annually, including the largest meeting in the world on infectious diseases and a meeting of approximately 800 attendees on Biodefense Research. The ASM publishes scientific books and sponsors meetings, conferences and workshops to stimulate research and the dissemination of experimental data.
The ASM has been involved for over half a century in policy related to the potential misuse of pathogenic microorganisms and microbially produced toxins as weapons of warfare or bioterrorism. Since September 11, 2001 and the ensuing anthrax mailings, there has been heightened concern that protection against such future attacks be increased. Many worry that terrorists can subvert the normal scientific enterprise and policies have been established to restrict access to certain biological agents that could be used for deliberate harm. In the US expanded biodefense research on the most dangerous agents and toxins—the select agents—has intensified issues about biosecurity and the publication of information in scientific journals that could be put to inappropriate use. The ASM has been working with government officials and Congress on policy measures to enhance laboratory security without unduly inhibiting scientific research and the exchange of scientific information.
Like most scientific societies, the ASM is a diverse and open organization that supports the advancement of science but does not dictate the views or activities of individual members. Through its Public and Scientific Affairs Board the ASM has played a role in policy discussions and shaping legislation and regulations involving biological weapons control and biosecurity and has convened meetings and roundtable sessions to encourage discussion and information exchange on this topic among its members. The Society responds to opportunities to comment on new laws and regulations affecting research through congressional testimony, position statements, the Federal Register public comment process, meetings with policymakers and interactions with relevant government committees and boards. The Society provides information about laws and regulations affecting biological weapons control and biosecurity issues on its web site, alerts to its membership and its monthly news journal.
The ASM realizes that scientists have a responsibility to confront ethical issues in science and has a code of ethics that enjoins ethical behavior on the part of microbiologists. The ASM code establishes that it is the responsibility of microbiologists to conduct research that is beneficial to humankind and that openness of research activities provides the transparency necessary to help prevent activities that could result in the misuse of microorganisms as biological weapons.
The ASM Code of Ethics was adopted in 1988 and was revised in 2000 and 2005. The Society’s Code begins with a section titled “Ethics Standards for Society Members." This section presents general principles to guide members: The Society’s Code of Ethics contains relevant sections that seek to discourage ASM members from activities that involve misuse of microbiology: (1) ASM members aspire to use their knowledge and skills for the advancement of human welfare; (2) ASM members strive to increase the competence and prestige of the profession and practice of microbiology by responsible action and by sharing the results of their research through academic and commercial endeavors or public service; and (3) ASM members are obligated to discourage any use of microbiology contrary to the welfare of humankind including the use of microbes as biological weapons. Bioterrorism violates the fundamental principles upon which the Society was founded and is abhorrent to the ASM and its members. ASM members will call to the attention of the public or the appropriate authorities misuses of microbiology or of information derived from microbiology.
The ASM is committed to the responsible and ethical publication of science. Following the terrorists incidents of 2001, the ASM adopted specific policies and procedures for its journals to provide a degree of careful scrutiny in the peer review process of submitted manuscripts dealing with dangerous agents. Following the 2001 incidents, there was a heightened sense that scientists and their journals should exercise voluntary efforts to review experimental data that might have potential destructive application. The ASM has sought to achieve a proper balance between valid security measures and the need to pursue scientific research and the publication and sharing of results. The ASM does not support unwarranted restrictions on the free flow of legitimate scientific communications within microbiology that can lead to advances in biomedicine. The free exchange of scientific information is essential to the saving of life and to future benefits of research for human health and the environment.
The ASM has worked with the National Academy of Sciences and other scientific organizations and publishers to discuss appropriate policies regarding the review and publication of manuscripts dealing with research that could present public safety issues and identifying sensitive information and policies to screen information in a manner that will not interfere with or jeopardize research. The ASM Publications Board review process seeks to determine if an article contains details of methods or materials that might be misused or might pose a threat to public health or safety. The ASM Publications Board will not publish papers that violate the ASM Code of Ethics or that violate other widely accepted guidelines for research such as the Recombinant DNA guidelines for research involving recombinant DNA. While ASM has adopted procedures for publication of its journals, ASM continues to require that research articles contain sufficient detail to permit the work to be replicated and authors must agree to make materials available to the scientific community while adhering to all laws and regulations governing the shipment, transfer, possession and use of biological materials. Omission of materials and methods would compromise the scientific process and could lead to abuses as well as the perpetuation of errors. ASM believes that open research is essential to discovery and 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.
Thus ASM has been working to protect against the misuse of science without undermining the integrity of the scientific process and the appropriate communication of research results that is critical to sound science. Review for sensitive information is difficult and complex—there is no common definition of what is dangerous or sensitive information and no individual is empowered to decide what is potentially dangerous knowledge or research. There is always the issue of dual application of scientific knowledge for beneficial or malicious purpose. For example, genomic data is useful for identifying targets for drugs and vaccines, but genomic information could be potentially useful for identifying means to increase virulence or to counter currently available therapies, vaccines and detection. The potential for good and evil is encoded within genomes. We must err on the side, however, that genome sequences are far more valuable to legitimate researchers and to the health and safety of the public than to bioterrorists. Transparency in science is also important to differentiate whether offensive or defensive research is being conducted. While reasonable and sensible security and ethical polices are necessary, open and collaborative research is essential to advances and the protection of people against infectious diseases and bioterrorism.
The ASM is a member society of the IUMS. The IUMS is one of the 26 Scientific Unions of the International Council of Science (ICSU). It consists of 3 divisions: bacteriology and applied microbiology, mycology, and virology plus 6 committees, 8 commissions, and 2 federations. The IUMS has 113 member societies and 14 associate members. The IUMS was founded in 1927 and became a member of ICSU in 1982. The objectives of IUMS are to promote the study of microbiological sciences internationally: initiate, facilitate and coordinate research and other scientific activities which involve international cooperation; ensure the discussion and dissemination of the results of international conferences, symposia and meetings and assist in the publication of their reports; represent microbiological sciences in ICSU and maintain contact with other international organizations. The governing bodies of IUMS are the General Assembly and the Executive Board. The Executive Board has reviewed the ASM position and the ASM code of ethics and are supportive of them. At the meeting of the IUMS in July, 2005 in San Francisco the Executive Board will further discuss formal adoption of the ASM code of ethics or develop a similar one to be approved by the General Assembly. Member societies will then be encouraged to do the same. It is important to note that the upcoming meeting of the IUMS presents a unique forum for these discussions because their will be approximately 6,000 attendees representing 100 countries.