H5N1 and the ethos of research


There has been a lot of controversy about research work done on the H5N1 bird flu virus. In particular there is some discussion about if the results should be openly published.

The fear

The fear is that the experiments based on mutations of the H5N1 bird flu virus could be used by terrorist groups. The experiments show how the virus could mutate into a form that would spread easily amongst humans.

There are two papers submitted to Nature, one written by Kawaoka (Wisconsin-Madison) and the other by Fouchier (Erusmus Medical Centre). You can read a Q&A from Nature publishing group here.

The US National Security Advisory Board for Biotechnology (NSABB) has asked Nature to remove some of the information that could be useful to terrorists. World Health Organization in Geneva has stated that more discussion is needed.

There is also the opinion that the dissemination of the full work is important if we want to tackle the natural threat of bird flu.

I am far from an expert in this area and cannot offer an informed professional opinion about this specific issue. I suggest people start by reading the BBC report.

The wider issue

The problem is that not disseminating the work in full goes against the ethos of modern science. Progress is made only by sharing ideas and results. The scientific community will pick up on parts of a given work and further develop them. This is how progress is made and prevents scientists “re-discovering the wheel” every time then engage in research.

Science is there for the benefit of wider society. This is not just in practical medical or engineering terms, but also culturally. Couple this with the fact that most fundamental science is paid for by public tax money, scientists have a moral duty to disseminate their work.


The debate really starts when scientific work can clearly be perverted and used for harm. One has to think about the greater good.

It is an unfortunate fact that human conflicts drive science and invention. We must reconcile our position with the assertion that all scientists and engineers involved in “war work” are developing terrible things for a greater good, at least as they see it.

So that said, we still have the issue of scientific censorship by governments and other agencies. Generically, scientists will want to publish their work, with the greater good in mind.

Now what?

We need academic and scientific freedom. However, that does not mean a “free for all” attitude and we do have many safeguards about conducting ethical research.

It could be possible that some research, principally the details are just so sensitive that they do pose a real threat. Scientists, governments and society have to think about this.

Maybe we need a wider debate about ethical dissemination.