Life Sciences Research Today Facing Dilemmas Like “1940s With Nuclear Weapons”

Chickens await their fate at a temporary wholesale poultry market at Cheung Sha Wan in Kowloon 28 December after inspectors declared half the site to be infected with the deadly bird flu virus.

Photo by TONY AW/AFP/Getty Images

In December, the science community was in something of an uproar over controversial research into the transmission of avian flu, or A/H5N1, between mammals. Concerned that the results could be used to create a biological weapon or might accidentally spark a pandemic, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity encouraged the authors of two studies to keep parts of their data inaccessible to the general public. The recommendation—which was not legal binding—spurred a contentious debate over “dual use” research that could enrich knowledge, but also could be dangerous.  

Now the advisory board has given new insight to its recommendations. In a commentary (PDF) published in Science magazine, the board declares that this is a watershed moment for the life sciences, as techniques become increasingly sophisticated and policy struggles to keep up. According to the board:

The life sciences have reached a crossroads. The direction we choose and the process by which we arrive at this decision must be undertaken as a community and not relegated to small segments of government, the scientific community, or society. Physicists faced a similar situation in the 1940s with nuclear weapons research, and it is inevitable that other scientific disciplines will also do so.

The board draws a further parallel to the 1970s, when research into recombinant DNA technologies hit prime time.

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