Bush administration officials were appalled and pleaded with the editor of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences -- Alberts, at the time -- to decline the paper. As Bush security experts scrambled to find a legal way to force classification of the paper, Alberts noted that the then-new NSABB was not yet ready to offer advice. He was on his own. Alberts opted to publish, concluding, "If the types of calculations and analyses in the Wein and Liu article are carried out only by government contractors in secrecy, not only are the many actors in the U.S. system who need to be alerted unlikely to be well informed, but also the federal government itself may become misled."
The Fouchier and Kawaoka papers have yet to be published. While Alberts and his Nature counterpart mull their options, policymakers ought to consider what a bizarre predicament we are in. Why should such weighty decisions rest on the shoulders of editors? Every time serious dual-use conundrums have reached government, political leaders have demurred and ultimate decisions have similarly fallen to publishers. In every known case, publishers have, as can be expected, opted to publish. This happened in 2001 when Australian scientists accidentally made a 100 percent lethal form of mousepox, the rodent equivalent of smallpox. It also happened when an American team used that same method to make superdeadly cowpox and other pox viruses. Similarly, publication was the choice for a lab-modified version of the 1918 flu virus, ultralethal forms of SARS, a man-made polio (published with a detailed how-to section), and dozens more potentially dual-use discoveries.
In their defense, the relevant scientists and editors argued that there was no evidence that evildoers made use of any of this information. In response to this view, Stuart Nightingale, a biosecurity consultant to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, recently wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association, "this does not mean, however, that such articles have not been or will not be used to do so. Well-organized, valid information with the imprimatur of respected peer-reviewed journals could be especially valued by a malevolent actor over any information that might be available on the Internet."
Outside of police states, though, censorship is impossible to enforce and ultimately useless within scientific circles. No professional group is as cybersavvy as scientists, save the actual computer-industry coders. Indeed, the Internet was originally created decades ago to encourage the exchange of information among scientists. Most researchers have tight collegial relationships with their peers, among whom discoveries are shared almost instantly. Methods, samples, reagents, and the basic intellectual tools of science are freely exchanged, and scientists who opt out of this fluid process are shunned, even condemned, by their peers. This is true at all tiers of the scientific process, from the senior-investigator level all of the way down to undergraduates toiling inside campus laboratories for school credit. Electronic information leaks, gets hacked, or "disappears" all the time. It is profound folly to imagine that global biosecurity can be attained through censorship. Even the NSABB decision to allow publication with methods omitted misses the point: Most of us (I include myself) already know how, in broad terms, Fouchier made his supervirus, and dozens of leading scientists all over the world know the work in sufficient detail to replicate it.
Still, recognizing the limitations of current codes and the BWC, some members of the European Union now advocate policing of science. A movement is afoot to allow police authorities to examine lab notebooks and scour laboratories across the continent on a routine, proactive basis. In a controversial editorial in the December edition of the European Molecular Biology Organization's journal, editor Howy Jacobs argued, "Some might argue that the state has no place in an academic laboratory, but I believe the threat is real enough that this blanket appeal for trust and virtue is insufficient as a response.… No security system can be perfect. But democratic societies and responsible scientists need to be vigilant and proactive."
Jacobs's plea is not likely to find many adherents among biologists, who as a group strongly believe in sharing information. The social norm of sharing is at its most extreme among self-described "life hackers" and "DIY (do-it-yourself) synthetic biologists." By definition, these biologists think that science ought to, in the Internet era, be a vast collective enterprise for the good of humanity, wherein thousands of researchers toiling inside home pseudo-labs, colleges, or enormous professional facilities work together to solve pressing problems. They are trying to turn algae into genetically modified solar collectors, use viruses as switch signals in tiny biocomputers, make vital food crops drought- or pest-resistant, create living art from genetically modified assemblages of organisms, and cure diseases by growing genetically altered cell colonies that can be surgically implanted or injected into ailing people. Some adherents to the DIY biology movement insist that their collective amateur laboratories are akin to the garage days of the development of Apple and Microsoft hardware and software in Northern California. From a scientific viewpoint, it would be hard to name any time in the history of biology as exciting as this.
Even in traditional pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and academic environs, the synthetic-biology movement, coupled with extraordinary advances in genetic sequencing, have upped the ante on both what is possible and what constitutes "dual-use" potential. A decade ago, sequencing the human genetic blueprint was a monumental feat costing millions of dollars, executed in hundreds of labs around the world. Today an individual's genetic blueprint can be fully sequenced in a couple of days at a cost of about $1,000; biotech company Illumina advertises the service at $4,000. New technology coming out of the pipeline will bring that time and cost down more than 90 percent this year. Sequencing far smaller microbes is now so cheap and easy that deciphering the deadly details of plague or AIDS can be performed by, as Clinton phrased it, anybody with "college-level chemistry and biology." A perfectly functional DIY synthetic-biology lab, complete with gene sequencer, costs about $25,000 today; it will go for $5,000 soon.