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Should important scientific data be kept hidden for fear of bioterrorism?Recently,...

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Noelle Thompson | High School Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted August 17, 2012 at 8:34 PM via web

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Should important scientific data be kept hidden for fear of bioterrorism?

Recently, scientists made a controversial decision. In laboratories, the scientists created a strain of bird flu that is transmissible to humans. At first, scientists agreed to not publish their results. Many people were concerned that knowing how to create the virus would be information that could be used by terrorists. However, scientists have decided to publish at least part of their findings. They argue, and the World Health Organization agrees, that the information is needed for public health officials to prepare for possible outbreaks in the future. Should this data be released despite the risks of bioterrorism? 

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brettd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted August 17, 2012 at 9:31 PM (Answer #2)

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Gandhi, in his famous writings about what he called "Seven Sins of the Modern World", identified one failing of society as Science without Humanity.  While it is difficult to control scientific advances being pursued by both government and private agencies, in dozens of countries around the world, humans seem to be entering scientific realms that require more thoughtful deliberation.

For example, perhaps we can reliably clone humans in the near future, and the potential for abuse of such technology is massive.  So keeping such technology secret for as long as possible (not to mention controlled and regulated) seems wise.

While difficult to enforce compiance, this also seems like a good time for the UN to pursue international agreements and treaties that ban certain forms of research or the supervised destruction of man-made viruses like the strain of bird flu you mention.

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Kristen Lentz | Middle School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted August 18, 2012 at 11:25 AM (Answer #3)

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I agree that certain realms of science need greater security.  As for the bird flu situation stated in the original post, I disagree with the publishing of the article.  Further, I question the creation of a potentially devastating pathogen in the first place.  I guess I could see the logic in trying to determine if human to human transmission of the disease is possible, but once it was determined it should have been destroyed or immediately classified and work begun to develop an cure or treatment.

I am honestly surprised that high level scientific laboratories haven't been a target of terrorists or hostile forces to a greater degree to this point.  The primary focus of our government should be national security, and certain scientific discoveries should definitely fall into that realm.  We spend billions of dollars on the development of weapons each year, but those weapons will do us no good if we are attacked with a bio-weapon.  Potentially harmful scientific data must be guarded with the same vigor as our nuclear technology or military secrets.

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wannam | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

Posted August 20, 2012 at 6:51 PM (Answer #4)

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That's a difficult question to answer.  On the one hand, publishing their findings is essentially handing a terrorist the recipe.  On the other hand, scientist must share results and experiments or their is little point in their continuing.  Health organizations must be able to be prepared.  Other countries and other scientists should benefit from the work that is being done.  Science can progress by building off of itself only if we are all willing to share our findings.  Unfortunately, there are those that will use scientific research for nefarious goals.  It could be argued that the scientific processes to create such a virus would be so technical that it is unlikely an untrained terrorist would be able to recreate their results.  The risk of the health officials needing the information could outweigh the risk of terrorist misusing said information.  I can see the argument from both sides but I'm not sure which is the right answer.

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belarafon | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted August 22, 2012 at 8:35 PM (Answer #5)

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As with any potentially harmful scientific breakthrough, the synthesis of a human-infectious bird flu could be used to wage biological warfare. However, the cost and knowledge needed to replicate the strain is probably more than most fringe groups can afford; in my brief research, most bioterrorism seems attributable to small groups rather than well-funded and well-connected groups.

I find it odd that terrorism groups do not wage more biowarfare; most countries are simply not prepared for a real pandemic. The film Contagionfocused on that problem, as there is no infrastructure to rapidly deploy a preventative vaccine or cure.

Regardless, I don't think the fear of weaponizing new research is as big an issue. 90% of people who read about this research, or even read the specific details, will not comprehend it enough to use it for any purpose. The only reason I think research should be hidden is if it is for something simple that can cause enormous damage; if you could make a deadly bioweapon out of household materials, simple enough that anyone could do it, then I would be in favor of hiding the details. For the above scenario, since the information can be used to prepare and defend against an attack, I think the scientists are correct to share part of the information.

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mwalter822 | Teacher | (Level 2) Educator

Posted August 24, 2012 at 10:38 PM (Answer #6)

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I guess it's a balancing act. Which poses the greater threat, bioterrorists or the virus itself. I can see why, in some cases, we would not want to make things easier for terrorist groups by publishing results such as these. I guess the next important question is, who makes the decision?

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litteacher8 | Middle School Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

Posted October 1, 2012 at 2:22 AM (Answer #7)

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Almost anything can be turned into a weapon, so it is kind of hard to say what should be regulated.  Generally, I think that chemicals and biological materials that can be turned into weapons of mass destruction should be controlled.

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K.P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted October 10, 2012 at 11:21 PM (Answer #8)

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I find this a difficult question. I think, as a non-scientist, I simply do not have enough information to make a judgement. I'd value knowing what trophyhunter has to say about it. On the one hand, I do believe in transparency and sharing information. On the other hand, I do believe that, ever since the Manhattan Project, the developments of scientific research (in some areas) have become more and more hazardous and dangerous. On the third hand (if I can borrow a spare hand), my overriding (unenlightened) thought is: What are they doing making this stuff in the first place for!? I'm less pleased about these kinds of scientific activities than i am unsure about this answer.

I'm at a quandry. On the one hand, I think I'd say to the CCC: and how do you think there would be an outbreak if they hadn't created it and and if no one gets a hold of it?! On the other hand, ... well ... that's where I run out of hands and I'm no further along than I was before. I think a better question for the average non-scientist is: Should a grass roots movement go up to legislatively require transparency and full disclosure of dangerous and hazardous research before the research is a fait accompli?

This might resolve the question of "tell" or "not tell" by possibly resulting in prohibition of the research in the beginning. Yet this avenue is fraught with pitfalls and dangers as well. Perhaps there is no satisfactory answer to this question in our danger-fraught, chemical-laden, illness-fraught modern world.

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