Controversial Research: Good Science Bad Science
It sounds like a great idea: experimentally mutate a rare but deadly virus so that scientists can do a better job of recognizing dangerous emerging strains. But it also sounds like a terrible idea — the studies could create a virus that is easier to transmit and produce findings that are useful to bioterrorists. Last year’s news that two research teams had done exactly that with the H5N1 bird flu virus was enough to spread fear around the globe and prompt a temporary moratorium on the work. A US biosecurity panel has since lifted its restrictions on publication of the teams’ findings in Nature and Science, arguing that the work has clear potential benefits, that the modified virus seems to be less lethal than the original and that the data are already circulating in the community.
But the episode has highlighted how thin the line can be between research that’s a blessing and research that’s a threat. Such fraught lines of enquiry exist in many scientific fields. Some could undermine global security, whereas others could create painful ethical dilemmas for families. Nature examines four examples to get a sense of how frequently such conundrums arise — and show that scientists must constantly ask themselves whether the benefits outweigh the risks.