This morning, news broke that brought life to a fear that had until now been hypothetical, and one that had been wielded by critics of both synthetic biology and open science for a long time. It’s one that now weighs heavily upon us all. Dutch researchers manipulating the H5N1 flu virus intend to publish the results of their research, which invariably includes details as to the mechanisms of pathogenicity and mutability of the virus – information that could theoretically be used with malicious intent to augment pathogenicity in this or other flu strains, ultimately posing a threat as an intentional biological weapon. Thus, a philosophical challenge presents itself in a very real format: What are the costs and benefits of open science? How open can science safely be?
“There are areas of science where information needs to be controlled,” the scientist said. “The most extreme examples are, for instance, how to make a nuclear weapon or any weapon that is going to be used primarily to kill people. The life sciences really haven’t encountered this situation before. It’s really a new age.”
I’m torn. From a scientific perspective, I understand why this research was undertaken and also why the results are important – a fuller understanding of the mechanisms of mutation and pathogenicity in a virus of this kind can lend to the development of more direct and effective responses (or preventions) to an outbreak. In the right minds and the right hands, this research could potentially contribute to a better method of treatment. If, however, this information were to find its way into the “wrong” minds – those with malicious intent – it could provide the insight necessary to intentionally increase the pathogenicity of a virus. On the one hand, there is an opportunity to put a more comprehensive understanding to work saving lives, on the other, that understanding could contribute to the threat of taking lives. It’s a tricky situation and one that I haven’t yet found a clear answer for yet.
My first thoughts favor openness. I perceive the benefits to outweigh the risks and that the biosecurity groups – in favor of the censorship of this (and likely other) knowledge – are overreacting and ultimately limiting the potential good that could result from studies like this. The case for open science is strong, but I fear that it’s not strong enough to overcome fear itself. There may not be substantial reason to be afraid – I personally don’t believe that there are a significant amount of evildoers with the resources to use this knowledge for doing evil, but I will concede that evildoers exist and could potentially put new knowledge to use with malicious intent. That uncertainty is enough to instill a fear that will, I regret to believe, empower a new wave of regulations to limit the spread of knowledge.
Regulations of this nature are a direct and immediate threat to a movement that I believe has the power to change the world for the better. The fears that will authorize these regulations are the same fears that allow a nervous uncertainty and a dark view of human nature to overpower an acknowledgement of the potential for positive change (cheaper, faster, better techniques and technology to combat disease, produce and provide goods and services that benefit all of mankind). This movement represents a decentralization – a de-institutionalization – of research science and provides lower barriers to production and discovery. This movement is still very much in its formative stages, and is, I fear, vulnerable to being prematurely stamped out by the sorts of regulations that will doubtlessly be proposed as a result of today’s news. What I foresee is both censorship of and restriction to research science involving the fundamental mechanisms of life – limiting the access of such knowledge to only a handful of tightly-controlled groups and keeping it out of the hands of much of the world’s scientific community. This sort of ruling would invariably inhibit independent research from taking place…openly. I think the worst-case scenario actually involves a truly underground movement wherein “biohackers” are driven back into their garages and basements to work in seclusion and without accountability or support on problems and projects they undertake that might relate to the machinery of life and the ability to manipulate it intentionally.
The beauty of the DIY Bio community is in its openness. Through communication and collaboration, support and guidance can contribute to safe and ethical practices amongst independent scientists, as well as for accountability on behalf of those taking part. There’s a tremendous amount people curious enough about life itself to study it, and I doubt that curiosity can be fully extinguished by law, so it’s my position that this community should be treated as an asset and not a threat – something to be nurtured and developed and brought into the light to avoid its population from retreating back into the dark. These are the formative years and we have the power to direct the development this community – this movement – in a way that can address the concerns of openness, but it must first be allowed the opportunity to develop.
I’ll be interested to see what regulations are proposed as a result of this (and likely other) studies. I expect that this really is the beginning of a new age in biological science and I have high hopes and a great deal of optimism, but also a healthy fear for the effects of fear itself.