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Professors Weigh in on Government’s Biosecurity Redact Request

Gostin & Kraemer

Lawrence O. Gostin, left, Linda D. and Timothy J. O’Neill professor of global health law, and John D. Kraemer, assistant professor of health systems administration, say a request by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to redact scientific information in scholarly journals doesn't violate the First Amendment but “reveals a troubled relationship between security and science."

January 19, 2012 – The prestigious journal Science published an online opinion piece today it solicited from two Georgetown professors about the federal government’s 2011 request to redact parts of scientific information it deemed a biosecurity threat.

The scientific papers written for Science and Nature involved research teams from other institutions, funded by the National Institutes of Health, that genetically modified the H5N1 avian flu virus so that it could spread rapidly, theoretically killing more than half of people who contract it.

The research by two different teams – the University of Wisconsin- and Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands – was conducted in animal models believed to represent how the virus would spread in humans.

The journals have not yet announced their intentions regarding the government’s request.

Doesn’t Violate First Amendment

Georgetown professors John D. Kraemer and Lawrence O. Gostin said in their opinion piece that while the request by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) “reveals a troubled relationship between security and science,” it does not actually violate the First Amendment.

Kraemer is a lawyer and assistant professor of health systems administration at the School of Nursing & Health Studies (NHS). Gostin, the Linda D. and Timothy J. O’Neill Professor of Global Health Law at Georgetown, is director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, co-founded by NHS and the Law Center.

Science explains that the avian flu research prompted the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) to advise HHS to recommend that Science and Nature redact key information prior to publication.

Both the NSABB and HHS expressed concerns that published details about the papers’ methodology and results could become a blueprint for bioterrorism.

Strengthen Precautions

“The NSABB process seems to have worked well in this instance,” Kraemer said. “It raised legitimate security concerns while avoiding censorship of the scientific press. But there remains a need to strengthen precautions around this type of research before it occurs.”

The authors said the government request did not violate the First Amendment because it did not use legal force or undue inducements or penalties.

In their opinion piece, the authors explore various court cases and say the federal government has the power to prevent dissemination of sensitive life science research, but “… there are good reasons to exercise that power sparingly.”

What Should Be Done

Kraemer and Gostin’s Science article include recommendations that:

  • Institutions should develop the requisite expertise to review dual use research (biological research with scientific purpose, but which could be misused to pose a biologic threat to public health/national security).
  • HHS should specify the categories of research requiring institutional review, including at least seven types of high-risk experiments.
  • HHS should set clear and consistent standards for institutional review. If Institutional Biosafety Committees (required at all academic institutions that receive federal funding for research involving recombinant DNA) are formally designated to conduct the institutional review function, HHS should clarify whether NSABB will guide and oversee the process.

Finding a Sound Balance

Kraemer and Gostin write that the latter process would ensure a “sound balance between scientific freedom and national security.”

The opinion piece is part of four Policy Forum articles Science has published online today exploring the implications of research on H5N1 avian influenza.

The articles are available to the public, along with additional resources, on the Science journal website.

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