The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity and the slippery slope of censorship – Part 4 – The Star Chamber

The NSABB’s censorship of flu studies has been exerted by intimidation, so far. But their opinions may soon have the force of law, if  the National Security Council (NSC) gets their wish.

From The Boston Herald, February 19, 2012

The National Security Council is moving to exert greater federal control over scientific studies of highly lethal diseases and toxins in the face of mounting fears that the research could be used by terrorists and rogue states, according to people with knowledge of the process.

[snip]

The new guidelines would give federal agencies the legal authority to limit disclosure of research. Among the entities whose grant making could be affected are the Pentagon, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Agriculture and the NIH.

No-one in their right mind will work on flu or any other area of research which could be torpedoed at any time by the NSABB. The censorship committed thus far has likely already severely damaged recruitment into the labs whose principal investigators have been vilified by the NSABB. Say good-bye to a generation of potential flu researchers (in the United States, at least).

The NSABB is becoming a Star Chamber unaccountable to the scientific community, able to destroy careers and entire fields of knowledge they deem “dangerous.” Many on this committee may have good intentions. But then again, so did the original Star Chamber.

From Wikipedia:

The Star Chamber (Latin: Camera stellata) was an English court of law that sat at the royal Palace of Westminster until 1641. It was made up of Privy Counsellors, as well as common-law judges and supplemented the activities of the common-law and equity courts in both civil and criminal matters. The court was set up to ensure the fair enforcement of laws against prominent people, those so powerful that ordinary courts could never convict them of their crimes. Court sessions were held in secret, with no indictments, no right of appeal, no juries, and no witnesses. Evidence was presented in writing. Over time it evolved into a political weapon, a symbol of the misuse and abuse of power by the English monarchy and courts.

The stated purpose of the NSABB is to prevent biological weapons from falling in the wrong hands, something no-one would argue against. But, just as the original Star Chamber became corrupted over time because of a lack of accountability, so too will this new Star Chamber risk being used as a tool of political repression.

The current membership of the NSC consists almost entirely of career politicians. Out of 20 members, I count 1 scientist. And no biologists. If the NSC gets the power they want,  politicians will be directing the activities of the NSABB. And the NSABB will have absolute power over all of Biology. They will be able to destroy anyone they wish, with no legal recourse for their victims.

The role of NSABB in censoring flu research has been the focus of most of the media stories, thus far. But the precedent they set by controlling publication of flu results will permit them to extend their control to many other areas of biology. This is because almost all of biology is now potentially, or actually, “dual-use”. For example, gene therapy can be used to cure genetic diseases. However, it could also be used to genetically enhance soldiers. And yes, China is almost certainly using this technology for this purpose today.

Does this mean that NSABB has the right to destroy the career of anyone working on gene therapy?

I could come up with a “dual use” scenario for almost any field of biology. And these would not be simply theoretical. For those who have been paying attention, the Chinese government has given strong indications that it plans to apply modern biology in ways that would never be approved in the US.

If we allow the precedent of political control over biological research to be set with flu, it won’t end there. It never does.

Scientists need to speak up against the Star Chamber of Biology. Before it is too late.

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