As the life sciences become more global and collaborative, researchers have become more productive—and their work potentially more dangerous. White House officials in the past year delayed publication of two scientific papers out of concern for safety and security. In an interview for our October 2012 report on the state of the world’s science, Paul Nurse, president of the British Royal Society and former president of Rockefeller University in New York City, said that the issue had been handled poorly, and called for a “grown up” discussion of the subject.
Nurse, who won the 2001 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for his work on DNA and cell division, is well placed to understand the issues of globalization and microbiology. He divides his time between London and New York, where he still does lab research.
Here is an excerpt:
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN: Is the clash between research and biosecurity going to become more of an issue, particularly as the cost of doing life-science research gets lower and more and more people have well-equipped labs?
Paul Nurse: The bird flu papers in the last year have come out of the guidelines that were developed some years before. Frankly, I think [the guidelines are] just a fig leaf that has been introduced to look as if we’re doing something that is important. If you have a terrorist organization, do you think they couldn’t access this sort of data without having to wait for it to be published? It is almost certainly nonsense. If they wanted to get that data, all they have to do is to hack into the university’s servers producing it. It was totally misplaced. That isn’t the way you’re going to control it if you wanted to control it. This debate was largely to do with trying to look as if something was being done, because politicians and society were very bothered about it.
My own view about it is that it’s going to be almost impossible to control publication of this sort of data and getting access to this data. It’s naïve to think that you can. These approaches are naïve, especially when you remember that the restrictions are essentially nationally confined, and not international.
But does it really matter? We can do awful things already with all sorts of natural [pathogens]. I’m not sure that preventing a few more things makes such a big difference. The dangers of trying to restrict that are probably greater than the benefits because these investigations were aimed at trying to understand what would make a virus particularly virulent. By suppressing [the research] we’re not dealing adequately with another aspect of the problem, which is how you actually deal with natural epidemics. We need to have a grown-up discussion about this issue.