August 9, 2002

Scientists call for witholding sensitive data

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) has been asked by its contributing authors to withhold information potentially useful to bioterrorists from its journals. Ronald Atlas, president of the ASM, has sent a letter to the National Academy of Sciences requesting a conference of journal editors to discuss the possibility of censoring scientific findings that might jeopardize national security.

"We are now being asked to allow authors to withhold critical information because of concern that significant data could be misappropriated or abused," Atlas wrote.

For many, Atlas' question falls at the core of the scientific review process. While the authors are afraid their detailed data will allow terrorists to reproduce sensitive experiments, other scientists protest that without this data the legitimate reproduction of scientific experiments will be impossible. "The main issue for us is if you withhold information that makes work not reproducible, it would undermine the scientific process. Science by definition must be repeated," Atlas said. "Our [the ASM's] current position is that we will not publish any material that cannot be repeated."

The question will now be put to the larger community of journal editors through the National Academy of Sciences, a non-profit organization of distinguished scientists chartered by Congress in 1863. A staff member of the Academy, Eileen Choffnes, is currently organizing the conference of scientific journal editors

So far the requests to withhold information from ASM publications have come from individual scientists making judgments based on the nature of their research. A common concern involves experiments conducted with DNA primers, the small segments of DNA that extract specific genes from a nucleus. The primers are used to create sensors that detect biological attack. Scientists fear that an adversary's genetic engineers could easily circumvent the sensors once they discovered the specific primers being used.

Physicists in the 1930's and 40's faced a similar problem with the advent of nuclear technology and the construction of atomic weaponry. Papers concerning uranium and related matters were withheld from nearly 250 journals and circulated privately among American physicists.

However, Atlas maintains that this approach could ultimately harm American science. "People used to refuse to disclose the materials used in their experiments and it would undermine the validity of those experiments," Atlas said. "For example, ideas like Cold Fusion could have gone a lot further if the information about the materials were fully published."

This issue will be very sensitive for the Academy, which has recently been touting the role of technological and biological development in the fight against terrorism. In a recent report to the federal government, the Academy pledged its support for the bipartisan bill implementing a new office of Homeland Security, an agency that aims to make technological research a critical part of its mission by consolidating and promoting several federally funded scientific agencies.

The scientific community remains divided on the subject. Donald Steiner, the University's A.N. Pritzker Professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology, and a member of the Academy, believes that moral and patriotic issues may outweigh the need for highly detailed information in scientific journals. "It's a complex issue," he said. "Under ideal circumstances you want to publish enough details to be repeatable, but with the serious possibility that it would enable terrorists to do something, it could be sufficient to publish examples and general results without giving the specifics of the experiment."

Some editors have suggested a pre-publication review of any federally funded project before distributing papers for publication. Until the proposed conference, whose date has not yet been set, scientists and journal editors will have to solve these problems themselves.

"It is a matter of providing for public safety," Steiner said. "There should not be blanket censorship of biological results, but perhaps we should ask scientists to responsibly omit specific details from their work."