ITHACA, New York — Recently, scientists in California discovered a new strain of Clostridium botulinum, the bacterium responsible for the disease botulism.
This discovery made national headlines because the scientists purposefully withheld publishing the bacteria’s genetic sequence. The new strain produces a type of deadly botulinum toxin for which there is no antidote. For that reason, California scientists and public health officials decided to redact the bacteria’s sequence information to prevent it from falling into terrorist hands.
This incident harkens back to a controversy that began in late 2011, when leading influenza scientists attempted to publish details of how they had genetically engineered the H5N1 bird flu virus.
These scientists initially faced objections from an independent expert panel, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), which was established after September 11 to advise the US government on biosecurity issues.
In their initial recommendations, the NSABB argued that the experiments’ general conclusions be published, but not “methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm.”
Eventually the NSABB reconsidered their original recommendation, and the researchers published their work in full.
More recently, the same bird flu researchers said they want to engineer new flu viruses that have increased pathogenicity, transmissibility and host range.
Various scientists, civil society groups and the public have raised concerns about whether open scientific publication of this work will lead to recipes for terrorism. These recent scientific controversies suggest that advances in the life sciences will require more careful threat assessments in the years to come.
This current concern of published biological experiments serving as recipes for terrorism is not new. We need only to recall 10 years ago when the publication of the artificial synthesis of poliovirus raised similar concerns. After the poliovirus controversy died down, there arose security concerns about experiments on the 1918 influenza virus and in synthetic genomics.
These persistent scientific controversies have revealed weaknesses in our scientific, intelligence and government structures that assess security threats from the emerging life sciences and biotechnology.
The H5N1 controversy, in particular, has shown disconnects between the life science and intelligence communities, with a troubling relationship between the NSABB and intelligence units.
For example, based on my in-depth research of the H5N1 case, it is clear that key intelligence analytic units did not have access to the scientific manuscripts nor to NSABB deliberations during the controversy over publication of the flu experiments.
Rather, the NSABB controlled access to critical information, provided little transparency into their deliberation and drove the analysis of the threat—one that focused on narrow technical issues. The intelligence community was drawn into the H5N1 controversy late in the NSABB’s deliberations—after the board’s first recommendations had already been issued.
Although we need technical advice to inform security policymaking, assessments of the bioterrorism threat coming from the life sciences requires a broad range of expertise and information. A better analysis of such threats would involve more critical engagement of the intelligence community and a range of social science experts who can inform about terrorist intentions, motivations and capabilities.
Social science experts can also provide a more nuanced understanding of the difficulties involved in replicating scientific experiments and translating them to work for terrorist purposes.
The H5N1 controversy has also revealed that we need to create new structures and practices for the acquisition and use of expert knowledge in threat assessments.
The NSABB was plagued by a variety of politics present inside and outside of the board that made intelligence analysts (and others) doubt their recommendations and expertise.
We need to create a new forum and set of expert practices that would increase opportunities for information exchange and deliberation between a variety of experts and intelligence analysts. In these forums, a mediator could be employed to moderate deliberations and to identify strengths and weaknesses of positions. This would produce more accurate, engaged, and less politicized threat assessments to inform US policymaking.
With advances in the life sciences continuing, we should expect more questions and controversies about future scientific experiments and how such work should be handled and published.
There is a need for intelligence analysts to be more involved in these evaluations and we should give them a broader array of social, material and intellectual resources that they can bring into their threat assessments. We’ve been lucky so far, but without improvements in threat assessments, that luck could run out–and with disastrous or catastrophic results.
Kathleen M. Vogel is an associate professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies and Peace Studies Program at Cornell University. Previously, she was a William C. Foster Fellow in the US State Department’s Office of Proliferation Threat Reduction in the Bureau of Nonproliferation.