August 20, 2019

A Frightening Flaw in the Scientific Method

“Last year, the world learned that researchers led by David Evans from the University of Alberta had resurrected a virus called horsepox. The virus hasn’t been seen in nature for decades, but Evans’s team assembled it using genetic material that they ordered from a company that synthesizes DNA.

The work caused a huge stir. Horsepox is harmless to people, but its close cousin, smallpox, killed hundreds of millions before being eradicated in 1980. Only two stocks of smallpox remain, one held by Russia and the other by the U.S. But Evans’s critics argued that his work makes it easier for others to recreate smallpox themselves, and, whether through accident or malice, release it. That would be horrific: Few people today are immunized against smallpox, and vaccine reserves are limited. Several concerned parties wrote letters urging scientific journals not to publish the paper that described the work, but PLOS One did so in January.

This controversy is the latest chapter in an ongoing debate around “dual-use research of concern”—research that could clearly be applied for both good and ill. More than that, it reflects a vulnerability at the heart of modern science, where small groups of researchers and reviewers can make virtually unilateral decisions about experiments that have potentially global consequences, and that everyone else only learns about after the fact. Cue an endlessly looping GIF of Jurassic Park’s Ian Malcolm saying, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.””

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