Friday, February 24, 2006

Needed: new scientific norms for emergency times

The tale of bird flu virus hoarding by scientists goes on. We have noted it often here, here, here, here, here and here. Canadian Press's Helen Branswell was among the first to call attention to one of the sources, the desire of scientists and national efforts to garner credit for work they have done or resources they "own." Both the US (here and here) and the Chinese have been accused of not sharing bird flu virus isolates. Today Nicholas Zamiska has a follow-up story in the Wall Street Journal verifying most of Branswell's earlier reporting and adding some additional details.

There are at least two issues involved. One is the "normal" behavior of scientists who want as much credit as possible for their scientific accomplishments. I understand this completely. I have spent a great deal of my professional career in academia. Publications, not money, are the coin of the realm in our world, the keys to promotion, reputation, lab space, grant funding and much else. This serves a useful function for science, acting as an incentive for high quality publications and sharing of results with the world community of scientists. But it can also have the opposite effect, leading to polluting the literature with the "least publishable unit" (splitting up a body of work into as many publications as possible to build a resumé), hesitation about sharing samples, data and techniques until they have been maximally milked, embargoing of scientific work by journals seeking to make news -- and distressingly often, nasty authorship disputes. All of these seem to be involved in the stubborn refusal of the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture to share important viral isolates with WHO and the world scientific community. Various slights involving failure to acknowledge Chinese sources are cited, and apologies tendered for past misdeeds or mistakes. The Wall Street Journal article has some of the details and they ring true to these ears.

But there are also issues of national pride and the knowledge that viral isolates are an economic resource if they are used as seed for a vaccine. This, too, seems to have entangled itself in both the Chinese and US/CDC cases. In neither instance does it bring credit on the nations and scientists involved. In the context of an impending pandemic it is the worst possible outcome of an unlovely reality of academic science.

Viruses move across borders much more quickly than data, even though the latter are capable of moving with the speed of electrons. The speed bottle neck here is social and political. Neither the outmoded system of international relations nor the twentieth century mentality that governs senior academic researchers and journal editors works in this situation. In an emergency there must be some recognition that the usual criteria of personal and national credit are suspended. That might entail both a real and a perceived sacrifice in recognition, credit and perhaps economic benefit. Since that is a lot to ask of people and nations, we see the best antidote is worldwide censure of behavior that in other circumstances would be considered acceptable and usual but in this circumstance is reprehensible.

We should not tolerate withholding sequences, isolates or vital information until this emergency is over (and then we should re-evaluate previous norms). This is not just directed at the Chinese. It is also directed at many highly regarded western scientists in the US, Europe and elsewhere who have important scientific results they withhold pending publication in a peer reviewed journal. Journal editors are partially to blame and they should allow pre-publication announcements before formal appearance of papers. The best way to encourage a change of behavior now is punitive. Expose every instance and call the responsible scientists, journals or responsible national agencies to account.

Let's start with China's high ranking veterinarian in its Ministry of Agriculture, Dr. Jia Youling. It is time to provide all viral isolates to WHO for access in an international repository. Scientists using those or any isolates should credit the source. Failure to honor WHO's request should bring dishonor and international condemnation on Dr. Jia and China. The same is true for CDC. Release your viral sequence data and isolates in the same fashion. Your failure to do so brings shame on American science.

Who's next?