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A prestigious science journal has abruptly withdrawn a technical paper after government officials said the findings might aid bioterrorists. The move is likely to create a new tension between the government and researchers trying to balance scientific freedom against national security. NPR's David Malakoff reports.
DAVID MALAKOFF reporting:
The topic couldn't be scarier. What if terrorists managed to slip deadly botulinum toxin, which comes from bacteria, into the US milk supply? The paper's answer is that a lot of people could die. That's not a big surprise. Experts have long considered botulinum to be one of the top three potential bioweapons, along with anthrax and smallpox. But earlier this week, the calls started coming in after the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences sent journalists a preview copy of the paper. Bill Skane is spokesman for the National Academies in Washington which publishes the journal.
Mr. BILL SKANE (Spokesman, National Academy of Sciences): We had questions raised about the article and about certain parts of it from reporters and also from other people who were being called by reporters.
MALAKOFF: Skane says those other people who called included senior officials at the Department of Health and Human Services. According to HHS spokesman Mark Wilson, they asked the journal not to publish the paper. They were concerned that it contained details about botulinum and the dairy industry that might be useful to terrorists. Late yesterday afternoon, Skane says the journal agreed to the request.
Mr. SKANE: We are committed to publishing the paper, but we are taking time to review it once again at a higher level at the academy to make certain that we hold to our pledge that we wouldn't publish something that could possibly used by a terrorist.
MALAKOFF: The decision came as a big surprise to the paper's author, Larry Wein of Stanford University. The journal's rules prevent him from discussing the study because it hasn't been published, but he suggested that it contains only publicly available information, the kind that should help policy-makers improve protections against a botulinum attack. If government officials wanted to keep that information secret, Gerald Epstein says they failed miserably. He's a biodefense expert at The Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, DC.
Mr. GERALD EPSTEIN (The Center for Strategic & International Studies): Catching a paper where this one apparently has been caught is the worse possible place to deal with this problem. We have a paper written. Apparently, it's been fairly widely disseminated, and we are now shining a huge spotlight onto it by doing a very unusual act, which is, `The paper we told you we're going to print, we're not going to print that.'
MALAKOFF: And he's not sure that the paper, which he's read, is worth all the worry.
Mr. EPSTEIN: This is a classic example of the conundrum we face. The pieces of information in the paper are not secret. The type of analysis the researcher goes through is nothing very magical. So what the paper does is it has helped make the task of getting to the answer a little bit shorter, but the answer isn't one that should terribly surprise anybody.
MALAKOFF: Still, Epstein says it's often better to be safe than to be sorry. And he predicts that government officials will continue to agonize over what to do about information that might advance science but also help terrorists. He says nobody has yet found an easy bright line between the two.
Mr. EPSTEIN: The conclusion that any paper that might conceivably be of use to a terrorist should not be published would just shut down society. That means we don't publish road maps of cities. It means we don't publish the chemical periodic table; it means we don't print math textbooks anymore.
MALAKOFF: The National Academy says it could take as little as a few days to decide whether or not the botulinum paper ever sees the light of day. David Malakoff, NPR News.
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