One of the biggest ethical dilemmas facing science is that between their desire for free and open access to information and their desire to not cause harm.
Back in 2003, I assigned this essay prompt to my class to help them grapple with some of ethical issues that scientists face
You are working in a biological research laboratory that is doing research on finding cures for liver cancer using genetically modified forms of known viruses. After years of hard work, you create a new form of a virus that seems to be able to attack and destroy cancer cells, thus reversing the progress of this deadly disease and promising to provide a long-term cure. Not only would this discovery result in saving thousands of lives, it is such an important breakthrough that may even win a Nobel prize for it. You are really excited about this and plan to publish your results. But while in the process of checking your results to make sure there is no mistake, you discover that it is also possible to slightly modify the virus you created so that it becomes a rapidly proliferating mutant that is extremely lethal and kills people rapidly and painfully. In the wrong hands, this could become a terrifying biological weapon. At present, you are the only person who is aware of this more deadly possibility. Should you publish your discovery of the benign and beneficial form of the virus because of the potential benefits to so many people? Or should you suppress your findings altogether because the potential for harm is so great?
This situation seemed a little far-fetched even to me then, one of those artificial problems that teachers construct to make a point but recently news reports have emerged of an actual case like that.
Two teams of scientists working on the H5N1 ‘bird flu’ virus, while working on ways to understand and combat that disease, discovered a mutation that enabled it to transmit easily among mammals. There was concern that, if published, someone with malicious intent might create the mutant virus in order to create a pandemic. A scientific advisory board initially said that the papers should be published with significant redactions, with the full information only given to a few select researchers, but they have since reversed their stance and will allow publication. Ed Yong gives a good explanation of what is going on.
It turns out that there was a somewhat similar dilemma back in the 1970s involving the new field of genetic engineering where there were similar concerns about the possibility of creating cancer genes. The scientists who were then involved held off on publishing their work until a conference was held in 1975 to set guidelines on genetic engineering research. Those guidelines are still in effect.
These kinds of ethical issues are going to become increasingly problematic as our technology improves and the line between what is ‘natural’ and what is human-made becomes blurred.
[Update: Marshall in the comments provides a link to a thoughtful article on this topic by Peter Palese, a researcher who works with deadly pathogens, and is thus directly affected by this debate.]