Mary Helen Arthur

Since the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, increased security has worked its way into many facets of our lives, some previously untouched by security concerns. Some individuals resent the intrusion, while others welcome measures intended to protect our safety. An ongoing passionate debate about the publication of scientific research promises to have significant consequences, as scientists are challenged to examine the entire structure of our current system for research and publication.

Publication of research results is a fundamental component of the academic system. But academic researchers are not the only members of the scientific community that stand to lose if access to research results is restricted. Research that touches on food safety systems creates information that is vital to those who have the day-to-day obligation to keep our food safe, including public health agencies and the food industry. The dilemma in a nutshell is, How do you plug holes in the food safety system without telling anyone where the holes are?

For example, research demonstrating that a particular agent could survive processing conditions for a specific food might be extremely useful to a terrorist planning to intentionally contaminate the food supply. On the other hand, until the risk is identified, control measures to prevent or minimize the risk may be difficult, if not impossible, to develop. In many cases, the dilemma is less clearcut. Information about the characteristics of food packaging helps food manufacturers select the best packaging materials for their specific food product and promotes the development of new packaging materials to better meet manufacturers’ needs. However, terrorists might be able to exploit this information to use packaging as a vehicle for contaminants or to thwart anti-tampering devices. Where should we draw the line?

The answer goes to the fundamental concepts of scientific openness and basic scientific research. Our current approach is based on openness; this approach facilitates scientists’ efforts to reproduce the results of others’ research and to build incrementally on the published information. As new studies are published, the body of scientific literature explores the nuances of an idea, and, in turn, sparks new ideas to explore. Sometimes the science advances in predictable ways, sometimes in unpredictable ways. With such a system, it is difficult to determine what research results might provide greater benefit to terrorists than to the scientific community at large.

Debating the Issues
At a recent meeting on “Scientific Openness and National Security,” held on January 9, 2003, in Washington, D.C., Bruce Alberts, President of the National Academy of Sciences, noted that “Half of what scientists initially believe turns out to be wrong; therefore, reproduction of results is key.” NAS joined with the Washington, D.C., Center for Strategic and International Studies to sponsor the meeting as a step toward engaging the scientific community in a dialog about the national security implications of scientific research and appropriate safeguards. “Scientific information can be used to do harm, but scientific openness is critical for scientific progress,” Alberts said.

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Much of the concern in the life sciences community is focused on research results that might enable terrorists to make pathogens more virulent or otherwise modified so they can be more successfully delivered in an attack. Researchers in nuclear physics have dealt with national security concerns for decades, but biomedical research had usually been considered benign, noted John Marburger of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The anthrax attack changed the landscape, he said. “When disease can be used as a weapon, the science of disease can advance the cure, but it also can be turned to yield a more powerful weapon,” he said.

But for those involved in food, the issues encompass not only the weapons themselves but the delivery system as well. It is no secret that food manufacturing and distribution could serve as a potential delivery system for chemical or biological agents. Detailed information about this infrastructure might provide terrorists with valuable knowledge for an attack. But this same information may be an essential component of efforts to improve our existing food safety system for unintentional contamination and also may be the foundation for efforts to prevent or minimize the impact of a terrorist attack.

The government has a system to identify and safeguard classified information. But much of the information in question may not fit the traditional classification structure or may not be subject to classification because it is not produced with government funding. This “sensitive but not classified” information is the source of the controversy, as various parties debate the need for a set of guidelines that limit access to this information without invoking the entire government classification scheme.

Traditionally, it has been most effective to classify information that is difficult to create, but in the life sciences that may be basic data (e.g., the genome of a pathogen) and with holding that information would greatly hinder scientific progress on numerous fronts, Marburger said. Application-oriented information is easier to develop and less specialized, so it is easier for terrorists to develop this information on their own, decreasing the value of policies to restrict access.

In terms of food, one of the most significant areas of concern is information that describes the food manufacturing and distribution system, especially areas of weakness within the system. When the government holds information about weaknesses in “critical infrastructure,” that information is exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act, thereby limiting access. But it has become clear that some of the information about critical infrastructure is in the hands of private business, not the government, according to Elizabeth Rinkskopf-Parker of the McGeorge School of Law. The question then becomes how access to such information can or should be controlled.

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Case Study: The NAS Agriculture Report
The debate is hardly academic, as such issues have already surfaced in several venues. A 2002 NAS report, “Countering Agricultural Bioterrorism,” is perhaps the most relevant example for the food industry.

The report—begun before the September 11 attack—examined our ability to detect and respond to a terrorist attack focused on crops or livestock. The report relied entirely on publicly available information, according to James Cook of Washington State University, who served as a member of the panel that wrote the report. Because the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture sponsored the report, the agency did a prepublication review and determined that the report contained no classified information. However, the agency later requested that NAS reconsider publishing the report, because of concerns that the content provided a “road map” for terrorists.

After additional discussion with the agency, NAS agreed to withhold one chapter of the report from publication, making the chapter available to individuals on a “need-to-know” basis. The information at issue—Chapter 3—consisted of eight conceptual case studies that examined how a pathogen could be introduced and spread through the U.S. agricultural system.

Chapter 3 does identify weaknesses in the system, and the panel was sensitive about “giving people ideas” when writing the chapter, Cook said. Although the information contained in the chapter is all in the public domain, “nobody had ever put this public information all in one place before,” he said. Still, none of the report’s reviewers challenged the report as having gone too far, Cook noted.

The experience also shed light on internal challenges within USDA, he said. The initial review of the report was conducted by career-level agency staff who had been responsible for initiating the project by requesting the report. The issue arose when the report was later evaluated by individuals at the political level within the agency, showing the difference between policy and scientific perspectives.

Controlling Access
Balancing different perspectives will likely be the key challenge in developing any sort of policy to control access to sensitive but unclassified information. John Hamre, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, emphasized that the scientific community and the security community must learn to work together and integrate their efforts. “You cannot have good science and good security without the two communities working together as partners,” he said. The two communities will naturally engage in a certain amount of “push and pull,” he noted, with security professionals trying to limit the amount of information available and scientists opting to share information broadly.

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One of the big questions is, Who should make publication decisions and manage access to this information? Federal agencies that regulate food are addressing the terrorist threat on a number of fronts. But regulatory agencies may not have the authority to address some of the publication issues, because limiting access to research results raises complex legal and free speech questions. Several speakers at the meeting agreed that government regulation may not be the best approach, calling instead for scientists to develop their own self-policing system.

Marburger said, “Everyone agrees that (1) we should protect against terrorism, and (2) we should protect the freedom of expression that makes America great. The problem is the balance.”

Ronald Atlas, President of the American Society for Microbiology, argued that scientists and scientific publishers must take a leadership role to avoid government censorship. “We should refuse to publish what we consider unethical to publish. . . . We cannot rely on the government to do this for us,” he said, noting that “ASM continues to believe the best defense is information.”

Initial Efforts
As scientific publishers work to define policies and procedures to address the publication of potentially dangerous information, editors worry about the potential “chilling effect” restrictions might have, according to Don Kennedy, editor of Science magazine. If policies are too restrictive, they will discourage certain kinds of research. The best scientists will not pursue research that they cannot publish, and we certainly do not want to discourage scientific progress in these areas, he said.

According to Kennedy, Science has not received a lot of questionable papers. When a troubling issue arises, the publication has a small outside group that will consider the issue, he said. With additional experience in these issues, Kennedy expects that it will become more clear where the issues lie.

The review process used by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is a relatively new development, according to editor Nick Cozzarelli. The publication staff flag research papers addressing agents of concern and brings these papers to the editorial board for consideration. Approximately 20 papers have been reviewed to date, and in each case the benefits of publication have outweighed security concerns, Cozzarelli said. Two of these papers were sent to outside experts for additional review, he noted.

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Gerald Epstein of the Institute for Defense Analysis in Alexandria, Va., discussed potential boundary conditions that might be considered to develop a workable policy. He noted that any policy must be international in scope, because that is the nature of today’s scientific community. One challenge, he noted, would be to apply similar policies to similar research, e.g., academic research vs industry research. Any potential process may introduce inefficiencies into the system, Epstein said, but that may be acceptable if the security benefit is real. “But paralysis or arbitrary decision making is unacceptable,” he stated.

The international aspects of the issue are very real for the ASM journals, according to Sam Kaplan, chair of the ASM Publications Board. With approximately 14,000 submitted manuscripts, about 60% are from non-U.S. sources in at least 100 foreign countries. The submission of manuscripts is only one side of the issue, however. Of the approximately 1,600 editorial board members for the ASM journals, about 15% of the individuals are foreign, as are approximately 20% of the 4,500 additional reviewers used by the publications, he said.

The ASM journals process, developed by the Publications Board, is based on the organization’s code of ethics. All 6,000 reviewers are asked to alert the editor if a manuscript describes the misuse of microbiology. After an initial screening by the editor, questionable papers are referred to the editor-in-chief, the chair of the Publications Board, and the ASM director of publications. This group may make a publication decision or may refer the paper to the entire Publications Board. To date, very few manuscripts have triggered detailed scrutiny, Kaplan said.

In describing the system’s reliance on the thousands of manuscript reviewers, Kaplan concluded, “Although you cannot fully control 6,000 people, the strength of the system is that you have 6,000 people trying to keep it honest.”

A group of journal editors and other relevant individuals gathered after the NAS meeting to explore the issues and discuss possible action. The outcome of the preliminary discussion was a statement ( that confirms the need to publish research results in a way that maximizes public benefit and minimizes the risk of misuse. The scientific community will continue to work to develop policies that identify and address these situations.

The development of a policy for handling of papers submitted to IFT’s Journal of Food Science that might provide information with the potential for terrorism has been brought to the attention of the IFT Communications Management Committee and its peer review subcommittee for consideration.

IFT Report is an Example
The Institute of Food Technologists recently completed “Task Order 5: Evaluation of Operational Risk Management Applied to Food Security” under its Food and Drug Administration contract. In the project, a panel of experts evaluated the consequences of a range of food/agent scenarios that might threaten food security via terrorist action and produced risk rankings of those scenarios. The outcome of the work is not for public disclosure and is intended for the sole internal use of FDA and the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. The agency will use the risk rankings to strategically employ its resources to reduce food security risks, partner with industry to develop preventive measures, and identify research needs.