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Biomedical experiments, public safety, morality
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12/22/2011 at 5:12:59 PM GMT
Posts: 20
Biomedical experiments, public safety, morality

Theres a lot of interesting discussion going on about a recent study in which scientists created a strand of h5-n1 that is more contagious and transmissible than its current form. The US government has asked that only the results, and not large chunks of the methods used to produce the new strand be published, thus handcuffing the study for further research and the positive potential impact of analysis by virologists. 

The obvious concern is that this technology gets into the wrong hands. There is also worry that a mistake or act of carelessness by a well-meaning  lab could release the virus into the public. (Similar concerns erupted over technology like the hydrogen bomb mid-century, but this is the first time a study has been deemed unpublishable by authorities). 

There are also questions being asked about whether, now the research has been done, it is inevitable that the information gets leaked or hacked, and some are saying that this research should not have been done at all. One commenter on the Diane Rehm show countered that in pure science, researchers often do not know the direction a study will take before they begin it, and it is essential to study the things that threaten our health in order to know them more fully and develop protections. 

Can we estimate whether the benefits of potentially hazardous virology will be greater than its obvious hazards?

Also, how much control should the government have over the publishing of publicly funded scientific research?

Should we conduct virus-creating research or should we keep our efforts contained to the production of vaccines against entities that already exist in nature?

1/3/2012 at 9:39:24 PM GMT
Posts: 20
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1/3/2012 at 9:40:40 PM GMT
Posts: 20
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1/4/2012 at 1:36:50 AM GMT
Posts: 130

These are deep and highly relevant concerns, with no easy answers. I think it is an important area for us in ASA to be considering. At one extreme is the opinion that anything that can be discovered should be, and at the other, anything that could be potentially used for harm should not be pursued. Clearly, neither extreme is viable, but on what principles do we make decisions concerning what research to pursue and what results to publish? And whose responsibility is the final decision to publish? The researchers? The government? A governing board?

An analogous, though of far less global impact, situation that I often had to deal with inside corporate research was the decision of what research to publish and what to keep as trade secret. The primary impact was corporate earnings rather than public health but the decisions were nevertheless difficult. Most corporate research labs have to face this tension. My philosophy at IBM Research was to challenge my team to be the world leader. And being a leader meant getting the world to follow. If they didn't follow, we would be a loner, not a leader. Therefore, we had to publish enough material to persuade our competitors to follow us rather than seek an alternative path. As long as they were following us, we were ahead, and not behind. That meant a maniacal focus on productive research with aggressive but selective publishing.

Applying that philosophy to viral reseach, the referenced approach seems to be on target. A trusted lab must aggressively pursue the research, while publishing just enough tantalizing results to chart the path but without enough material to let others get ahead. That may backfire, however, if others leapfrog the research. There's no surefire winning strategy.

1/7/2012 at 2:43:08 PM GMT
Posts: 5
The main reason I can think for wanting to do this at all is to understand better how the mechanisms of infection operate.  It is quite likely that one day, we may use viruses to do things that we would consider good.  For example, transporting some repair machinery to heal someone of some a genetic disease.  Perhaps also, by understanding how they infect, we may be able to disable the most dangerous aspects of some viruses or at least stay ahead of them in their adaptation.  If we knew what we were doing, we could estimate how and why the virus evolves and cut it off at the pass, as it were. Although we know many things, our current understanding of these things is very poor at best. 

Of course, the flip side of this kind of ambition is very dark, and the subject material of many Hollywood movies.

There is a profound responsibility required of anyone who embarks on this kind of research.  I don't think everybody should be allowed full access to all information on matters like this.  It seems like the more important point is to find fair and equitable ways of employing people fit for tasks like this, and the choices that nations make in what they chose to allow people to do in areas like this.  Wisdom is the key word here.  Perhaps it is true that wisdom is finite but folly infinite.  Even with all our technology, we live on a fine line.  God help us if we ever think we can go it alone.

by Grace we proceed

1/31/2012 at 5:04:42 PM GMT
Posts: 20
Follow - up article: scientists defend research