By William J. Broad, The New York Times, December 26, 2011
We have consultations, which of the inventions and experiences which we have discovered shall be published, and which not; and take all an oath of secrecy for the concealing of those which we think fit to keep secret; though some of those we do reveal sometime to the State, and some not.”
The specter of censorship loomed over science last week with news that a federal advisory panel had asked two leading journals to withhold details of experiments out of fear that terrorists could use the information to make deadly flu viruses — the first time the government had interceded this way in biomedical research.
But science and secrecy go back centuries, their conflicting agendas often rooted in issues of war and advanced weaponry. Self-censorship — the kind of confidentiality being requested of the two journals, Science and Nature — was even mentioned by Bacon, the 17th-century British philosopher long credited with illuminating the scientific method.
Governments have repeatedly tried to keep scientific information secret in fields as diverse as math and cryptography, physics and nuclear science, optics and biology. Now the call for concealment is falling on one of the hottest of contemporary fields — virology, where researchers are tinkering with the fundamentals of life to better understand whether altered flu germs might set off deadly epidemics.
“It’s a story with mythological resonance,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists and the publisher of Secrecy News, an e-mail newsletter. “It reflects the view that knowledge is power and some kinds of knowledge have destructive power.”
A lesson of history, Mr. Aftergood added, is that censorship often fails because science by nature is inherently open and gossipy — all the more so today because of instant communication and international travel.
“The notion that the boundaries of knowledge are defined by what is published by Science and Nature is quaint,” he said, referring to the journals. “For better or worse, the way that knowledge is disseminated today is ever less dependent on the flagship journals. It’s done by global scientific collaboration, draft papers, online publication, informal distribution of preprints, and on and on.”
Last week, one of the flu scientists under pressure to limit publication raised a different objection. The journals are considering distributing the sensitive data to only a subset of responsible public health researchers, who could then use it to bolster germ defenses, but the scientist, Ron A. M. Fouchier, questioned how feasible that was.
The list of potential recipients “adds up to well over 100 organizations around the globe, and probably 1,000 experts,” said Dr. Fouchier, of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. “As soon as you share information with more than 10 people, the information will be on the street.”
Federal officials and private experts argued that governments have a duty to safeguard the public welfare — even if that means sometimes putting limits on scientific freedoms.
“I want science to be as open and transparent as possible,” said David R. Franz, a biologist who formerly headed the Army defensive biological lab at Fort Detrick, Md. “My concern is that we don’t give amateurs — or terrorists — information that might let them do something that could really cause a lot of harm.”
And Bruce Alberts, the editor of Science, said the question for his journal was one not of federal intrusion but of “trying to avoid inappropriate censorship.
“It’s the scientific community trying to step out front and be responsible,” he said.
The most famous case of scientific suppression remains that of Galileo, who in 1633 was forced by the Roman Catholic Church to disavow his finding that the Earth revolves around the Sun. But over the centuries, the big clashes between science and the authorities came to center on highly destructive arms.
Starting in 1943, work in the United States on atom and hydrogen bombs led to a sprawling system of classification that in time involved millions of people and billions of dollars in security precautions. It was a world of safes and barbed wire, where individuals voluntarily gave up their rights of free speech.
In 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed after being convicted of passing bomb secrets to Moscow.
But atomic lore kept leaking. Today, nine nations have nuclear weapons, and dozens more are said to possess the secretive information, the technical skills and — in some cases — the materials needed to make them.
A new field came under scrutiny in the mid-1970s, when Washington tried to clamp down on publications in cryptography — the creating and breaking of coded messages. A breakthrough threatened to make it easer for the public to encrypt messages and harder for federal intelligence agencies to decipher them.
Agents of the National Security Agency — an organization so secret its initials were jokingly said to mean No Such Agency — paid a visit to Martin Hellman, an electrical engineer at Stanford University.
“They said, ‘If you continue talking about this, you’re going to cause grave harm to national security,’ ” he recalled.
Eventually, the government gave up, and the cryptography advances grew into a thriving global industry.
A new case arose in 1982 as the Reagan administration, eager to foil spies during the final days of the cold war, blocked the presentation of about 100 unclassified scientific papers at an international symposium on optical engineering. Protests erupted, and the administration soon backed down.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — and the ensuing strikes with deadly anthrax germs that killed or sickened 22 Americans — produced a wave of new jitters and restrictions. The main target was biology and its ability to make deadly micro-organisms.
The Bush administration pulled thousands of sensitive patents, papers and documents from public access, and debate erupted over whether journals and scientists at the frontiers of biology should accept federal restrictions. Many argued that the benefits of open inquiry — including new ways to fight terrorists — outweighed the theoretical costs.
“Terrorism feeds on fear, and fear feeds on ignorance,” said Abigail A. Salyers, president of the American Society of Microbiology.
But in 2003, the editors of Science, Nature and The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences issued a joint declaration saying that occasions might indeed arise when a paper “should be modified, or not be published.”
That day now seems to have arrived for advanced biology, at least in terms of developing a plan of response to the federal request. Publication of the two scientific reports — from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands — has been paused until the journal editors decide how to proceed.
Dr. Alberts, the editor of Science, laid considerable responsibility at the feet of the federal government.
“Our response,” he said in a statement issued last week, “will be heavily dependent upon the further steps taken by the U.S. government to set forth a written, transparent plan to ensure that any information that is omitted from the publication will be provided to all those responsible scientists who request it, as part of their legitimate efforts to improve public health and safety.”
Asked if he saw the federal panel as overreacting, Mr. Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists said no.
“They’re posing a question,” he replied, “not issuing orders.”
“There’s a world of difference between the government imposing the heavy hand of censorship and this board saying to take a second look,” Mr. Aftergood added. “I think they’re doing what they should do, which is to call attention to a difficult case. It’s the journals that will have to make the final decision.”