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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Publishing Scientific Papers with Potential Security Risks: Issues for Congress

Frank Gottron
Specialist in Science and Technology Policy

Dana A. Shea
Specialist in Science and Technology Policy

The federal government generally supports the publication of federally funded research results because wide dissemination may drive innovation, job creation, technology development, and the advance of science. However, some research results could also be used for malicious purposes. Congress, the Administration, and other stakeholders, are considering whether current policies concerning publishing such research results sufficiently balances the potential benefits with the potential harms. The current issues under debate cut across traditional policy areas, involving simultaneous consideration of security, scientific, health, export, and international policy. Because of the complexity of these issues, analysis according to one set of policy priorities may adversely affect other policy priorities. For example, maximizing security may lead to detriments in public health and scientific advancement, while maximizing scientific advancement may lead to security risks. Accounting for such trade-offs may allow policymakers to establish regulatory frameworks that more effectively maximize the benefits from dual-use research while mitigating its potential risks.

The current consideration of these issues began in late 2011, when two groups of U.S. government-funded scientists submitted papers to academic journals detailing genetic modifications that increase the transmissibility of a deadly influenza strain. Although these research results may improve pandemic influenza preparedness and response, they may also increase the probability that a highly contagious and deadly influenza strain will be introduced, either accidently or deliberately, into the human population.

Stakeholders, including the Department of Health and Human Services, the World Health Organization, journal publishers, and scientists, debated whether the possible benefits of publication outweighed the potential harms. The editors of the scientific journals decided to publish modified versions of both papers.

The controversy surrounding the publication of these influenza experiments demonstrated flaws in the existing federal mechanisms to identify and balance potential benefits of life science research and security trade-offs. Responding to these cases, the Administration released a new government-wide policy to address some of these flaws. It requires agencies that fund life science research to regularly review research portfolios and develop methods to mitigate security risks.

It is not clear whether Congress will agree with the Administration that the new policy sufficiently addresses all of the dual-use issues brought to light by this recent controversy. Congress could decide to allow the new policy to be fully implemented before evaluating whether it appropriately addresses the policy issues. Alternatively, Congress could require agencies to implement robust processes to identify potential research of concern prior to funding; require federal prepublication review of all potential research of concern to establish appropriate limits on the distribution of the research results; require federal licensing of researchers permitted to conduct such experiments and access results; and limit such research to the most safe and secure laboratories.

This report describes the underlying controversy, the potential benefits and harms of publishing these manuscripts, the actions taken by domestic and international stakeholders, and options to improve the way research is handled to minimize security concerns.

Date of Report: July 12, 2012
Number of Pages: 25
Order Number: R42606
Price: $29.95

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