Scientists and policy-makers have long understood that the products of research can often be used for good or evil. Nuclear fission research can be used to generate electricity or create a powerful bomb. Studies on the genetics of human populations can be used to understand relationships between different groups or to perpetuate racist ideologies. While the notion that scientific research often has beneficial and harmful uses has been discussed before, the threat of bioterrorism—a concern that has only grown since 2001—has led to increased awareness about the need to prevent the misuse of biomedical research, particularly when it involves dangerous pathogens or toxins.
In 2012, the concern was ratcheted up another notch by two papers reporting the results of research on genetically engineered strains of the H5N1 avian influenza virus. Although the H5N1 papers have potential scientific and social value, some scientists and policy-makers opposed their publication because they feared that terrorists (or others with nefarious motives) could use the research to create a bioweapon that could trigger a global pandemic.
The H5N1 papers raise difficult questions concerning the ethics of knowledge. Should scientific research with dangerous applications be published? Should some types of research be kept secret or not be conducted at all? What type of government oversight of dangerous research is appropriate? In this essay, I will develop a framework for thinking about the ethics of knowledge and apply it to the H5N1 controversy, focusing on issues related to publication. I will argue that redacted publication would have been a reasonable response to the dilemmas posed by the H5N1 papers if not for practical and legal problems with this option. Given these problems, full publication seems appropriate.