Nature publishes instructions on how to make a Frankenstein monster

My doctoral dissertation addressed what I called the “Frankenstein Complex.” So guess why this story bothers me.

Today, a scientific journal published a study that some people thought might never be made public at all.

The paper describes experiments that suggest just a few genetic changes could potentially make a bird flu virus capable of becoming contagious in humans, and causing a dangerous pandemic.

For months, a fierce debate has raged over this study and another one like it. The question was whether the full details should be kept secret, because of fears that the work might provide a recipe for turning bird flu into a bioweapon.

Right. Short version: this paper puts in the public domain a detailed blueprint for how H5N1 might … ummm … become contagious. Controversy? You bet – read the rest of that article.

Most of what gets published in scientific journals goes in service of legitimate interests and serves society by increasing the store of knowledge about the world we live in. I’m not a scientist, but I’m a fan and have devoted a good bit of my time to studying the history and philosophy of science. Which means I’m also aware that while science usually does things because it should, there is also an attendant arrogance that leads some researchers to do things because they can. In 1818, Mary Shelley began teaching us to be cautious, if not outright terrified, of scientific hubris, but the lesson has never been fully learned.

I’m profoundly disturbed by the publication of this paper. We have a constitution that views prior restraint against speech and publication as anathema, but one wonders about the judgment of Nature. Further, I can’t help wondering what the researchers themselves are thinking. From an institutional standpoint, the tenure and promotion committee isn’t going to give much credence to not publishing, so maybe there’s a feeling that there’s a legacy to be made here. If that’s it – and I’m just free associating here – that would mean we have a system that rewards rank sociopathy over the common weal, which is the precise opposite of what the scientific community is supposed to be about. Or maybe the researchers legitimately believe that the benefits outweigh the risks. If so, I’d like to sit down with them to discuss their risk assessment processes.

In recent years I have, like many of you, had plenty of chances to discuss 9/11, al Qaeda, and the campaign of terrorism against the US. I have argued that bin Laden and his cronies really don’t understand America at all, because if they did they would have followed up the Trade Center attack with… And then I outline what I’d have done had I been al Qaeda. I assure you, my idea would have worked. It would have been easy to execute and would have ripped the fabric of our society apart like cheap one-ply toilet paper. Just about any American hearing the scenario would agree that yeah, that would be easy and it would send us over the edge (even further than we’ve already gone). It isn’t that I’m an especially brilliant criminal mind, it’s just that I know my country and I understand better than an outsider where some of our leverage points are.

I thought about writing a piece on it here at S&R. Specifically I thought about it for maybe two seconds. But immediately I found myself considering the what-if. I’m pretty sure that we don’t have many terrorist readers. I cannot reasonably concoct a plausible scenario whereby my thoughts would wind up being acted on. But anything I publish is out there in the public domain, and maybe there’s a one in a million shot.

No possible reward from writing that article could be worth even that minute a risk.

But today, I bet there are some unsavory types showing an unusual interest in Nature. People who hate the US and know a little about biology.

So here’s your seminar question for the day: Dr. Yoshihiro Kawaoka and the publishers of Nature have the legal right to ease the path to weaponization of the H5N1 virus. But they have a moral and social responsibility not to. Discuss.

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8 thoughts on “Nature publishes instructions on how to make a Frankenstein monster”

  1. It’s not quite this simple. They published how to make bird flu contagious for ferrets, not people. The concern was that someone could adapt their technique to making it contagious to people.

    And this paper was published after more discussion among national security experts (involving multiple nations, no less) than I’ve ever heard about. This one was taken very seriously.

    There’s certainly an argument to be made that the researchers shouldn’t have done the research in the first place (and there are counterarguments – I haven’t personally formed an opinion on this one), but the publication of the research was a joint decision made by dozens, if not hundreds of people across multiple areas of expertise. As a joint decision, responsibility is shared across all the people who agreed to permit publication.

    From what I’ve heard about the process that this paper went through before publication, the process for addressing papers like this needs to be updated for modern realities of researchers working with international partners who may not have common legal and/or cultural and/or ethical frameworks. Precisely because this paper was taken so seriously and looked at so thoroughly, holes were discovered that need to be patched up before the next paper like this comes along.

    1. Are the following two statements fair?

      1: Learning how to make the virus contagious in ferrets potentially provides insight into how to make it contagious for other species?

      2: The level of controversy you describe suggests that many, many credible scientists agree with my position?

  2. BTW, Nature is the premier UK publisher of science, just like Science is the premier US publisher. Which is the most prestigious globally is a subject of opinionated debate, so far as I can tell.

  3. Absolutely. My point was simply to ask you to spread around the concern, not to try and convince you that your concern was unwarranted.

    Nature published an editorial about why they published the paper. It’s not exactly satisfying: Link. Too technical, not enough focus on the ethics. The one place that comes close is when they say the following:

    In subsequent discussions with biosecurity researchers, there has been a striking unanimity: where there is a benefit to public health or science, publish! It has been enlightening to see how scientists in this secretive arena see the open scientific enterprise as their best recourse in times of potential trouble.

    Not that this affects your concerns either. In fact, it could actually enhance them.

    I’d talk to your friend from Atlanta about this and see what he thinks, if you’re not already planning to.

  4. I’d rather it be published. You’d better believe there are people at the the Pentagon and military facilities worldwide who are studying next gen bio-weaponry in secrecy. Now the average person is aware of the possibility, which levels the playing field. I know terrorism is a real threat, but the solution is more information, not less. If more information about anthrax had been available in the last half of 2001, fewer people would have been exposed to anthrax, and a lot fewer people would have been taking unnecessary antibiotics which resulted in many new varieties of drug-resistant pathogens.

    1. Josh: While military research into devastating bioweapons is certainly a problem, I’m not sure handing that knowledge to al Qaeda and Stormfront is the solution.

  5. Sam, I’m with you on self-restraint where the “what-ifs” are concerned. I saw an interesting detour while writing about the CLE5 that took a similar route to yours, “If I were them and I REALLY wanted to paralyze Cleveland, I would. . . .” I would “not write this.” I would not give people ideas. I would not go THERE.

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