The scientists who sparked a furor by discovering how to mutate the avian flu virus, H5n1, so that it easily transmitted from person to person, announced this week that they were suspending their research for 60 days. As I recently wrote, their discovery was scary, given the high fatality rate of the avian flu in humans. After news of their relatively easy experiment began to spread, the government urged the scientists not to publish details, to avoid disclosing the recipe for a potentially devastating biological weapon to dangerous nations or people. The World Health Organization also expressed serious concerns.
The request launched a contentious debate among scientists about the nature of their work and their duties to national security. Nature and Science magazines (which had been asked not to publish detailed articles) had yet to make a decision on the government's request when the team suspended their research. But it's a good sign that the scientific community has at least begun discussing the extent of its self-policing obligations.
The US government's request was the first time that members of a task force established to monitor potentially dangerous research asked for cooperation to avoid disclosure. It may never be known how seriously the labs took the request. But the scientists did acknowledge in their letters announcing the suspension that they had failed to provide to the public any good explanation of the benefits of such research and what they were doing to limit any risks of release. "We realize that organizations and governments around the world need time to find the best solutions for opportunities and challenges that stem from the work," the scientists wrote.
It isn't entirely clear what will happen at the end of the 60 days, but it at least the suspension lets everyone take a deep breath (even if one of the lead researchers still seems annoyed by the decision). At the very least, the scientists should use the delay to provide more information to the public about why they are doing all this scary research in the first place.
It might also give the federal government some time to analyze the decisions to fund the research, and consider what sort of rules it should set regarding scientific publication of sensitive findings in the future. It may very well be that these experiments ought not to have been funded at all.