At this year’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Canadian government came under fire for allegedly “muzzling” scientists in its federal agencies. The accusation refers to media protocols imposed by the current government which discourage federal scientists from communicating freely with the press, and ultimately the public, about their research. Peter Kent, Canada’s Environment Minister, has stood by these protocols, arguing that such measures are necessary to ensure that “journalists [do not] try to lead scientists away from science and into policy matters,” which he believes should be the domain of ministers alone. However, journalists and scientists alike are concerned that these new protocols are being used to bury scientific findings that are not in line with the government’s political priorities. Their concern is well founded. This lack of openness undermines the fundamental purpose of government research agencies: to produce science that objectively informs policy in areas of public interest.
Since late 2007, scientists have been working on the genetic modification of the H5N1 influenza virus, often called “bird flu.” An attempt to publish the results of this research in Nature and Science was met with a firestorm of controversy about how much of this knowledge should enter the public domain.
There is great fear that the techniques used in the creation of this modified H5N1 virus could be used by malevolent actors to create new and dangerous pathogens. Should this study and those like it be subject to government approval, and be published only in certain redacted forms?
A recent debate over whether to publish two scientific articles detailing research on the bird flu virus has pitted national security concerns against information sharing in the scientific community. The concern is that publishing this information may aid in developing bird flu into a biological weapon whereas researchers counter that the information in the papers is crucial for learning how to recognize a flu pandemic. This article gives a good overview of the debate and the recent vote on whether two papers, one submitted to Science and the other to Nature, should be published.