Breaking news, from Nature: the principle investigators of the recent avian flu transmission studies (along with a couple of dozen co-authors) have publicly vowed to “pause” their research for 60 days.
What’a really interesting, though, are their reasons. They want to organize a conference to debate the issues:
“We recognize that we and the rest of the scientific community need to clearly explain the benefits of this important research and the measures taken to minimize its possible risks. We propose to do so in an international forum in which the scientific community comes together to discuss and debate these issues.”
Why is that reason interesting? It’s interesting because it seems, at least, to assume that all that is required in order to quell the public’s unease over avian flu transmission studies is for the public to near clear explanations of “the benefits of this important research.”
Now, that may well be the case. But surely not all criticisms have come from the scientifically uninformed. And there are are issues at play, here, beyond a full inventory of costs and benefits. Don’t get me wrong: I actually think this research probably needs to be done. So in fact I’m generally in agreement with the authors of this new declaration, both regarding the work and the pause. Where we differ (at least judging by this new statement) is in the content of the discussion that needs to be held. We need a discussion that at least raises the full range of relevant ethical factors, including yes costs and benefits, but also risk tolerance, rights and duties, trust, and more.