Scientists must speak to the common man

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 February, 2012, 12:00am


We live in a world created and defined by science and technology. Yet the people who make a profession out of these fields often act like high priests of old, communicating in esoteric language that only the initiated can understand. Most of the time, it is fine. Specialists go their merry way and the public theirs. But sometimes something spectacular happens and people are shocked and scared by it.

That was what happened when two research teams, in the Netherlands and the United States, announced that they had independently created an H5N1 strain that was transmissible between people and lethal in more than 50 per cent of cases. What if the re-engineered virus escapes from the labs and causes a catastrophic pandemic? What if terrorists or rogue states get hold of it?

The US government took the unprecedented step of asking two leading journals to edit for publication key steps in their experiments. Sensibly, the groups have agreed to a 60-day moratorium so researchers and heath officials can figure the best way forward.

When a deadly pathogen is created, the public is justified in demanding an explanation. Our very lives may be put at risk. After scientists have worked so hard trying to eradicate such diseases as smallpox, polio, malaria, measles and rubella, it defies common sense to create an organism deadlier than its natural variants in the wild.

Its creators say there is a need to understand how the H5N1 bird flu virus can mutate, to enhance surveillance, detection and diagnostics against this and other emerging diseases. Malik Peiris, a leading University of Hong Kong virologist, believes the research could be valuable; he wisely counsels for the need to find the right balance between security and understanding.

But it should be understanding not only of the technical kind, but popular understanding as well, so people know that these are not mad but responsible scientists working on their behalf, and not playing God.