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Research publication limits won't hinder bioterror, speakers say

Institute Professor Emeritus Philip Morrison received the Hans Bethe Science in Public Service Award at a March 12 symposium.
Institute Professor Emeritus Philip Morrison received the Hans Bethe Science in Public Service Award at a March 12 symposium.
Photo / Donna Coveney

As an experiment in obtaining the ingredients for chemical warfare, the staff of Scientific American had all the components of nerve gas delivered to their offices in midtown Manhattan.

"This was enough to kill thousands," said Scientific American editor-in-chief John Rennie. "It was all delivered and not one question was asked along the way."

Rennie and other speakers at a March 12 symposium at MIT said that limiting the publication of biomedical research to thwart would-be terrorists may not help because terrorism to date has not relied on advanced research but on less high-tech means such as airplanes, in the case of Sept. 11, and the postal system in the anthrax scare.

"Terrorists in the real world are not Dr. No with a lab in secret volcano headquarters, but more like lunatics in a garage or a cave," Rennie said. Kumar Patel, former vice-chancellor of research at UCLA, and chairman and CEO of Pranalytica, Inc., agreed: "The danger comes not from science, but at the engineering and technology level."

The symposium addressed the question: What limits should be placed on biomedical research in response to security concerns?

Although editors of 32 research publications announced recently that they will "self-police" their own publications to make sure they are not printing information of use to terrorists, the speakers felt that this self-censorship was probably intended to head off government censorship rather than protect the public from a real terrorist threat.

At the symposium sponsored by the Federation of American Scientists and the MIT physics department, Institute Professor Emeritus Philip Morrison, distinguished physicist and science educator, was awarded the first annual Hans Bethe Science in Public Service Award.

For more than half a century, Morrison has been a leader in physics, national security policy and science education. A Manhattan Project physicist, he is a co-founder of the Federation of American Scientists, which conducts analysis and advocacy on science, technology and public policy.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 19, 2003.

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