Reflections on 9/11, four years laterOne of the strongest endorsements of open access during the past year came from a panel of the National Research Council (NRC), a branch of the U.S. National Academies.
SPARC Open Access Newsletter, issue #89
September 2, 2005
by Peter Suber
The NRC panel asked whether the undeniable benefits of open access to genome data on pathogens outweighed the undeniable risks of misuse by terrorists. It concluded that they did, and explained its reasons in a book-length report issued last September.
Here's a summary from the press release announcing the report:
Current policies that allow scientists and the public unrestricted access to genome data on microbial pathogens should not be changed, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council, which concludes that security against bioterrorism is better served by policies that facilitate, not limit, the free flow of this information. While individuals or nations trying to develop bioweapons may be able to obtain data on pathogens, any restrictions tight enough to impede their access would probably also hinder efforts to develop vaccines and other countermeasures to bioterrorism, as well as other valuable scientific research....'Open access is essential if we are to maintain the progress needed to stay ahead of those who would attempt to cause harm,' said Stanley Falkow, chair of the committee that wrote the report, and professor of microbiology and immunology, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif. 'The current vitality of the life sciences depends on a free flow of data and ideas, which is necessary if science is to deliver new biodefense capabilities and improve our ability to fight infectious disease.'
The conclusion was based on three major arguments. OA to genome data not only helps fight disease, but would help fight diseases introduced by bioterrorism. If all data that might help terrorists were suppressed, the hit would be immense and science would be impossible. Even if we wanted to prohibit the public release of some genome data (facts about nature), the prohibition is unlikely to be effective.
The NRC panel is not just saying that OA to genome data on pathogens is better than its suppression and better than toll access to the same data. It's saying that the benefits of OA are worth the risk of smallpox, anthrax, and Ebola hemorrhagic fever --three pathogens whose genome sequences were already OA at the time the report was published. Compare that to the claim, regarded as radical in some quarters, that the benefits of OA are worth the risk of decreased journal subscriptions. The panel's endorsement could hardly be stronger.
I'm especially struck by the argument that OA to pathogen genome data doesn't merely offset a great harm with a great good, but directly helps combat the harm. In digging around the history of OA policy in the U.S., I found a letter from Condoleezza Rice in 2001 sounding the same theme in a broader context. At the time she was Assistant to President Bush for National Security Affairs. Today, of course, she is Bush's Secretary of State. Rice wrote: "The key to maintaining U.S. technological preeminence is to encourage open and collaborative basic research. The linkage between the free exchange of ideas and scientific innovation, prosperity, and U.S. national security is undeniable. This linkage is especially true as our armed forces depend less and less on internal research and development for the innovations they need to maintain the military superiority of the United States."
Terrorism is the last tactic of the powerless against the powerful. It's not likely to disappear any time soon, any more than the explosives and other weapons that make it so destructive. If so, we cannot say that we are safe; we can only say that we are safe for now. Terrorism has two peculiar properties that aggravate its long-term consequences. Fear of terrorism is based as much on the risk as on the reality, and we can never know when the risk of terrorism has ceased to exist. The risk may always exist; or if it ceases, we won't know that it has ceased; or opportunistic politicians will always be able to score points by claiming that it exists.
Hence, everything endangered by the fear of terrorism may be permanently endangered. That's why the NRC report is so important. To protect free inquiry from real threats and demogoguery about unreal threats, we can't wait for the risk of terrorism to drop to zero. We have to weigh risk against benefit and move on.
The perceived risk of terrorism may not decrease any time soon. But the NRC report shows that the perceived benefit of OA is increasing sharply. We may always have to make difficult balancing decisions in an unsafe world. But we are less likely now than in the past to believe that the value of OA is outweighed by the abstract risk of abuse.
I used to accept the maxim that to work for peace, we should work for justice. But the inadequacy of that maxim, at least in the face of terrorism, is becoming clear. Suicide bombers who indiscriminately kill non-combatants are not interested in justice. Religious and political zealots are not interested in justice if justice requires coexistence with infidels and dissenters. They are even less interested if justice requires toleration, and even less if it requires equality.
Violent ideologies may be intractable to reason, but they are not intractable to history. Each one arose from some complex of circumstances and each one will mutate and disappear under another complex of circumstances. We may not know what these circumstances are. Hence, we may not be able to explain the origin of particular ideologies or to predict or engineer their downfall. But despite our grounds for permanent concern, we needn't call violent ideologies truly permanent. Two related points still stand, however. First, if violent ideologies seem to disappear, then that might only be a temporary lull. Second, if they seem to stabilize and persist, then that might only be a temporary pathology.
Either way, however, fear can be real, and real fear can raise powerful objections to free inquiry and accessible knowledge. We cannot show that the fear is groundless, even when it is groundless --and for now, at least, in too many regions of the planet, it has its grounds. But there is another way out.
What's striking about the NRC report is not its low estimate of the risk of bioterrorism but its high estimate of the value of accessible knowledge. The NRC conclusion is not based on wishful thinking or political calculation, but on observation, evidence, and reasoning. The NRC defends knowledge with knowledge. Until knowledge has an even more marginal place in public policy than it has today, this is the most powerful way to defend access and sharing in an age of fear.
The NRC report: Seeking Security: Pathogens, Open Access, and Genome Databases, September 8, 2004.
National Academies press release on the pathogens report, September 9, 2004.
National Research Council
Here are some news stories on the report.
Emily Singer, Scientists stumped by dual push for open access, secrecy, News@Nature, September 28, 2004.
Keep genome data freely accessible, The Lancet, September 25, 2004. An unsigned and OA editorial endorsing the report's conclusions.
David Malakoff, Report Upholds Public Access to Genetic Codes, Science Magazine, September 17, 2004.
U.S. State Department, U.S. Report Supports Unrestricted Access to Pathogen Genomes, September 10, 2004.
Kate Ruder, Information on Pathogens Should Flow Freely, Report Says, Genome News Network, September 10, 2004.
Eugene Russo, NRC wants genome data unfetteredNothing to be gained from restricting access to bioterror agent genomes, says report, The Scientist, September 10, 2004.
Study: Germ data should be shared, Associated Press, September 10, 2004.
Maggie Fox, Hiding Genome Data Won't Protect Us, Experts Say, Reuters, Sept. 9. 2004.
Randolph Schmid, Panel urges sharing of data on germs, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 9, 2004. Excerpt: "Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge disagreed with the findings, saying that he does not think making such information openly available is a good idea."
* Postscript. Here are some earlier installments in this series. I didn't write one in 2003.
Reflections on 9/11 (2001)
Reflections on 9/11, one year later (2002)
Reflections on 9/11, three years later (2004)
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