Life sciences publishers take steps to address potential misuse of information by bioterrorists

DENVER February 15, 2003 -- The scientific community is beginning to come together to establish norms for information communication in the age of bioterrorism, Dr. Ronald Atlas, president of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), said at a symposium, BiosecurityScience in the Balance, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This is a work in progress, however, he emphasized, and we will have to continually seek to improve the process and more specifically define what sort of information might constitute a dangerous cookbook.

Atlas released a statement from journal editors and authors affirming the benefits of open publication but also acknowledging that there is information that presents enough risks of use by terrorists that it should not be published.

In the aftermath of terrorist and anthrax attacks, we in the life sciences community must live with greater restrictions on the conduct of our science. The USA Patriot Act, for example, in effect since October 2001, places restriction on possession of the particularly virulent microorganisms and toxins known as select agents. The Biopreparedness Act requires registration for possession of select agents, security clearances for access, and security and reporting systems when working with these agents, Atlas said.

The fear that information from such research may fall into the wrong hands is causing great anxiety within the scientific community and uncertainties among the public and policy makers regarding how to balance national security with traditional openness of science, he said. It is up to us in the scientific community to define the standards and to establish the framework to ensure that critical information is withheld from terrorists while permitting the continued advancement of biomedical research and the protection of public health.

However, he emphasized, We cannot do this alone. The scientific and national security com

Contact: Jim Sliwa
American Society for Microbiology

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