On good intentions

Ha, bet you thought I was gone. I sort of did, too.

I’ve been vastly disappointed with recent turns of events. Of course I am speaking of the actions of the appointed Guardians of the Universe, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB). This august group, at the behest of our own government, decided that certain knowledge, the mutations that make H5N1 more transmissible between ferrets, was too dangerous to be published in the open scientific literature.

This decision was, frankly, idiotic. Worse, though, I would argue that it has actually made the world a far more dangerous place, for a wide variety of reasons.

First, the knowledge of how one might make a more transmissible influenza virus is not equivalent to the knowledge of how to make a nuclear weapon (although I acknowledge that certain aspects of the outcomes of the two might be equivalent). In the latter instance, you can contain material. Nukes require nu-cu-lar stuff. Biology, on the other hand, as has been forcefully argued here and by many others, is just too damn easy. The reverse engineering of influenza virus is already possible. The tools are at hand, and could be spun up by virtually any government, non-state group, or even technologically competent individual. All that has happened is that some of the blue prints have been hidden for a short while.

Second, emphasis on that ’short while.’ The information is already out there; it has already been presented at scientific meetings. The moratorium is unlikely to stand for long, given the furor in the scientific community. And, honestly, ferrets are cheap. The evolution of a mobile virus is a dead easy process, apologies for the adjective. If someone really wants to do this, they’ll get ‘er done. And it can be hoped that the sequences will converge to what we (or at least some of us) already know and thus might be able to prepare for, as opposed to something new and even more deadly. Actually, one sort of suspects they will converge, given the press on the subject, which seems to imply that a relatively limited set of mutations are all that is necessary for transmission. If this is true, those mutations will arise again and again, in anyone’s hands who cares to look.

Third, the world now has a target for terror. We now have a US government-approved thing-that-is-too-bad-to-even-know-about, transmissible H5N1 influenza. Not exactly a secret, I know, folks have been talking about the H5N1 literally falling from the sky for awhile now. But there are really tons of bad things in the world of biology. Honestly, a terrorist could get all confused between targeted ricin attacks and bathtub ginned anthrax and arenavirus zoonoses. In honesty, I believe that’s one of the reasons nukes are so popular. You blow up. That’s it. Pretty simple to understand, on both the giving and receiving ends of things. With biology, there’s such a huge difference between diseases, transmission, weaponization … the message gets lost really fast. Think about the bogeys in your closet, and while there may be a Horseman of the Apocalypse labeled ‘Disease’ in their somewhere, I bet you can’t tell me what he or she is wearing. But now we can dress that Horseman to the explicit wishes of the US government and the NSABB. Certain mutations in H5N1 are officially bad. And thus officially a target for the types of folks who like to make big, symbolic gestures, like flying airplanes into buildings.

Fourth, and really this is the most important one, you just lost us again, US government. Remember when you arrested and prosecuted Thomas Butler at Texas Tech? That was meant to send a message to the scientific community, and boy did it. It sent the message that we should never, ever trust law enforcement, that we should view you as adversaries. That we should cease work on biodefense, just leave it to the professionals outside academia. That when in doubt about something the last thing we should do is contact you. That incident left a very bad taste in our mouths, and the furor was only beginning to abate … and now this. By labeling research ‘bad,’ by saying that the fruit of the tree of Knowledge really isn’t for us, you’ve just alienated an entire constituency that could have been your front line of defense. Because in the end, there is only one defense against biology, and that is human intelligence. Sensors are useless. Vaccines are useless. Remediation is useless. It is as though plutonium could assume a million forms, each one with its own unique and deadly specifications. In the end, you need to know about biology before it hits you, not after. And the people that need to tell you about what’s out there … are the biologists. We could have been your eyes and ears, if you hadn’t managed to spank the monkey that Speaks No Evil.

Fifth, the extension of this is not only that you’ve lost us, but you’ve created a constituency that has no reason to seek your exalted permission in the future. There are other ways to disseminate information than Science and Nature. And you don’t know what we know. You only know it if we tell you. And if we tell you in ways that don’t go through editorial boards … what exactly are you going to do about it? This Blog, for example, has always been a mild form of civil disobedience: telling the world the bad things that many scientists know and internalize and largely keep mum about. Because knowing is almost always better than not knowing, unless you are very, very sure about what you’re containing (see: nukes versus flu, above). Having human intelligence ready to hand is almost always better than trying to second guess an army of smart, innovative, and mostly contrarian folks. Don’t be surprised if scientists now think twice about clearly presenting the implications of their work, and if the new recipes for disaster are buried in Supplemental Methods (how exactly did you recombine HIV, Pim?) or just posted online.

Sixth, the security apparatus is a good thing (I truly believe this, despite being pissed as hell at the current turn of events), but it is not an efficient thing by any measure. If you apply security concerns to biology, if you begin to mark knowledge as Sensitive and FOUO and NOFORN and (God forbid) Secret and TS and SCI … then research will grind to a screeching halt, at least in certain areas. Whew, that’s what you want, right? Those bad scientists, they should just … slow down. Good thing our Chinese pals are going to slow down. And our Slovakian pals. And so forth. It’s like trying to regulate the Internet from within the confines of Fortress America: it can’t be done. It’s just stupid.

Well, I think that’s sort of out of my system. Two months of opening this page, and then being unable to write anything because I was just so annoyed with the whole thing. Maybe I’ll get back to my own brand of weird observations soon. Or maybe the site will be shut down or pilloried. Who knows? It’s a Brave New World, courtesy of the NSABB.


- originally posted on Tuesday, February 21st, 2012