Policy ForumPUBLIC HEALTH

Understanding Threats to Scientific Openness

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Science  12 Dec 2003:
Vol. 302, Issue 5652, pp. 1898
DOI: 10.1126/science.1092493

The scientific community is being confronted by public concerns that freely available scientific information may be exploited by terrorists. Differing points of view among scientists threaten to complicate discussion intended to address these concerns. Skepticism of the existence, breadth, and severity of the threat posed by would-be bioweaponeers is compounded by the failure to find clear evidence of biological weapons in Iraq. Also, some even question the extent to which open-source scientific material contributes to the threat.

Recent public discussions regarding the potential for open-source science to enable bioterrorist activities have occurred in a vacuum, without examples of “real-world” activity. This is largely because the need for national security professionals to safeguard sources inculcates a culture of secrecy unlike the openness of the life science community.

One potential contribution of the national security community is the opportunity, albeit limited, to educate scientists regarding current and emerging threats through unclassified case studies. The following brief description of some recent findings provides insight into activities of potential exploiters and emphasizes the importance of closer interaction between the scientific and security communities.

Documents recovered from an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan (1) in 2001 have shed light on procedures and methodologies used by al-Qaida in its efforts to establish a biological warfare (BW) program. Individuals involved in this effort apparently relied on scientific research and information obtained collegially from public and private sources (see figure, above right) (2).

Documents captured at an al-Qaida training facility.

Names and locations have been removed.

Books found at the camp describe State-sponsored BW activities and outline the history of biological warfare. The site also contained over 20 vintage research articles and medical publications from U.K. journals of the 1950s and '60s that provided a method for isolating, culturing, identifying, and producing bacteria, including Bacillus anthracis and Clostridium botulinum. Handwritten letters and BW primers found together at the same site suggest that al-Qaida's BW initiative included recruitment of individuals with Ph.D.-level expertise who supported planning and acquisition efforts by their familiarity with the scientific community. When specific information was not available in print, al-Qaida scientists apparently took advantage of symposia where they could obtain tips and techniques directly from unsuspecting researchers (2). The letter shown (figure, above) reveals plans to acquire bacterial strains, vaccines, production equipment, training, and expertise. The scientific community needs to be aware of this kind of activity. Identification of a recently constructed laboratory (3) with equipment and supplies that could be used to produce biological agents within a few kilometers of the site where the BW-related documents were found strongly suggests that al-Qaida proceeded beyond simply reviewing “dual-use” literature.

Like al-Qaida, the Japanese terrorist group Aum Shinrikyo sought to develop an intrinsic BW program; these efforts are a dangerous departure from the activities of other groups, which historically have sought to acquire completed weapons or produce crude preparations of toxins and chemicals (4). Other groups that pursue an independent BW program in the future also may rely upon dual-use information.

With publications from nearly 50 years ago, a marginally skilled terrorist could produce a crude agent for use in a limited bioterror attack. However, using more recently published research findings and procedures, casualty rates associated with such an incident would increase dramatically. Thus, our inability to restrict access to already published research in no way absolves the scientific and national security communities of our responsibility to address future findings of concern.

The life science community should take the lead in partnering with national security professionals to draft guidelines for identifying research of concern and weighing the benefits to national security against the cost to open communication of future life science discovery (5). Furthermore, scientists can help ensure security professionals maintain a working knowledge of cutting-edge tools and data with national security implications. Such a partnership should include scientists who are given security clearance and national security participants that represent the spectrum of relevant agencies with a strong background and training in the life sciences (6).

References and Notes

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