The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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Science faces security

Experts have long predicted that the H5N1 virus could kill hundreds of millions of people. However, in the last half decade, it has only infected about 500 people and has mainly circulated among birds and other animals. Why hasn’t this apocalyptic virus killed more people? The virus isn’t very contagious.

Last September in Malta, virologist Ron Fouchier revealed that he had successfully completed a lab experiment that resulted in bird flu virus becoming highly contagious among ferrets – the animal model used to study human flu infection. The implications of this discovery were frightening to much of the global community – if this research got into the wrong hands, millions could die. 

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity initially blocked publication in of the research in science journals. There is growing evidence that nations like Iran and North Korea are investing resources in bioweapons. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization and other advocacy groups recommended access to the data for research on how to prevent pandemics. There is still a good chance that the virus could become more contagious as it mutates. An interesting debate was setup by the conflicting opinions of two leading science organizations: is improved health research transparency worth the security tradeoff?

After 9/11, the United States has increasingly sided with the latter. Is it okay to spy on your own citizens if there is a chance that they are engaging in dangerous activity? Is it okay to hold a U.S. citizen indefinitely if he or she is potentially tied to terrorism? Is it okay to kill a U.S. citizen via a drone strike without a fair trial? Yes, yes and yes ­- at least in a ‘dangerous,’ post 9/11 world.

As security concerns have grown, civil liberties have decreased. Both the Left and the Right have conceded American liberties to fear. This framework is dangerous because it leaves the door open for interpretation. Policymakers can justifiably ask, without pause, “What can be labeled as a national security concern?” If the government makes a singular decision, it runs into a positive feedback loop – one decision affects the next decision and so forth.

Underneath the national security concern lies one singular question: does the benefit outweigh all other factors?

Princeton’s Lynn Enquist, editor in chief of the Journal of Virology, found that the research should be open to the public record because of the potential benefits.

“Scientists in the United States and all around the world are very curious as to how this thing is going to evolve because we have to be prepared for it,” Enquist said. “The public would expect us to be prepared.”

And that is the irony in this case and other cases of national security concern. Often, a collective deterrence against potential harm is better than preparation in secrecy and clout. Exclusionary mechanisms limit the ability to find solutions to pressing problems. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity overturned its previous decision on the H5N1 case last week. Science has led politics into new arenas of thought. Whether it is Copernicus’ challenge to a flat world, or Newton’s challenge to traditional motion or Darwin’s challenge on religion-based theory, science pushes the envelope and challenges conventional thinking. Science, with the decision on H5N1, has once again broken free of the ideas in the political arena. And that’s by no means a bad thing. Astronomy, calculus and natural selection agree. 

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