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April 15, 2012 (Vol. 32, No. 8)

Talking about H5N1 Research

Critical Debate Should Not Be a Monologue, Laypeople Need to Weigh In with Concerns

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    Peter M. Sandman

    Since last December, flu scientists have been locked in a battle over two papers reporting successful bioengineering of the H5N1 flu virus. H5N1 (usually known as bird flu) is incredibly deadly to humans, but almost completely unable to transmit from human to human—which many think is the only reason we’ve been spared a catastrophic H5N1 pandemic.


    The two research teams tinkered genetically with H5N1 to produce two new strains that are transmissible in ferrets and thus potentially transmissible in humans.

    The battle focuses on whether the two papers should be published with their methodologies intact, and on whether further research along the same lines should be permitted.

    Scientists on one side are worried about research autonomy and censorship, and excited about the possibility that publication and continuing research could lead to breakthroughs that might help prevent or prepare for a pandemic. Scientists on the other side are worried about laboratory accidents and human malevolence, fearful that publication and continuing research could actually launch a pandemic even if nature itself does not.

    One issue in this battle is what role the public should play in these decisions.

  • Reassuring the Public

    In response to the furor, flu transmission scientists organized a moratorium on their own research, aimed at calming the waters and buying time to make the case for unfettered research and publication. Soon after, the World Health Organization convened a meeting, mostly of influenza researchers, which predictably concluded that research and publication should be unfettered. But the group acknowledged that a pause was needed to allow time to reassure the public.

    The “public” that has followed these events is tiny. Most people aren’t worried about an H5N1 lab accident or terrorist attack. They’re even less worried about an H5N1 natural pandemic. Convincing people that the H5N1 natural pandemic risk is alarming is a tougher and more important task than convincing people that the H5N1 terrorism risk is less so.

    But let’s take the WHO conferees at their word and assume the job is to reassure the public that it’s okay to publish the two papers and resume H5N1 bioengineering research. What are proponents doing wrong in their effort to reassure the public? I’ll focus on just two (of many) issues: education and contempt.

  • Education Won’t Do the Job

    I worry that advocates of unfettered H5N1 research and publication want to “educate” the public out of its concerns. That almost never works. In risk communication and planning literature, this strategy is called “decide–announce–defend”: Figure out what to do; then tell the world that’s what you’re going to do; then rebut any and all objections with a mix of technical data and dismissive rhetoric. This is a thoroughly discredited approach.

    Decide–announce–defend is especially unlikely to work when serious risks are involved. “How safe is safe enough” is a values question for society, not a science question for experts who have a horse in the race.

    The dangers of concocting a potentially deadly pandemic virus in the lab are obvious. The benefits of doing so are less obvious. (Phrases like mad scientist come easily to mind.) So the burden of proof is on those who wish to assert that this is a sensible thing to do. Before making their case, they must first “own” the burden of proof, listen respectfully to people’s concerns, and join in a collaborative search for a potential compromise. Arrogant and self-serving rants about censorship won’t help.

    H5N1 bioengineering researchers are essentially supplicants, asking everyone else for permission to carry out work with huge (but unquantifiable) potential risks and huge (but unquantifiable) potential benefits. I doubt that’s how they will address public concerns —as a supplicant—but it’s how they should.

    Some of my corporate clients use the term “social license to operate” to capture their hard-won realization that they can’t do what they want to do if the public doesn’t want them to (and that that’s how it should be). Science, too, needs a social license to operate. The first step in securing your social license is acknowledging that you need it: supplicant, not educator.

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