Edited March 31 – According to NPR, both Science and Nature are working to publish the research in full in the next few months.
Original Post – March 30
Earlier today the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity announced that it recommends that the government allow two papers be published on modifications to the H5N1 avian flu virus. This reflects a reconsideration by the Board, which had recommended in December that the authors of each study withhold certain information before they were published. (The Board is involved because both studied involved National Institutes of Health funding.) This runs counter to a recommendation from a World Health Organization panel that the papers be published without editing.
This apparent reversal comes one day after the Board issued a policy on ‘dual-use’ biological research. By dual-use research the policy means research that
“can be reasonably anticipated to provide knowledge, information, products, or technologies that could be directly misapplied to pose a significant threat with broad potential consequences to public health and safety, agricultural crops and other plants, animals, the environment, materiel, or national security.”
If a department has identified research it funds as fitting the dual-use definition, it must conduct a risk assessment and formulate a risk mitigation plan to address the results of the assessment. This plan could include modification of the mode and/or venue for communicating the research. If that does not effectively mitigate the risk, redacting the publication is an option.
While some press accounts claim the Board’s decision is a reversal of its December recommendations, the manuscripts of each study were revised. The Board recommended that one of the studies (in press at Nature) could be published, but on a split vote, recommended that only the data, methods and conclusions of the other study be published. It is currently in press at Science.
So we have, in a fashion, seen these papers used as the first tests of the new policy. I don’t mean to suggest that managing research with dual-use implications is new. Far from it. But we do seem to be seeing such management being applied to a field that is not yet used to it.
The Board’s recommendations will go to the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, who would make the official recommendation, if she so chooses. Whether the journal editors would accept the new recommendations should become clear in the next few days. How the scientific community will respond to encouraged self-censorship versus insisted redaction from the U.S. government is unclear to me.