Should we limit scientific research for safety’s sake?

A researcher in the Netherlands has developed an easily transmissable version of avian influenza H5N1. In the wild, this flu does not move easily from human to human but seems to be about 50% fatal (ie 50% of all reported cases result in fatalities). Many argue that this is valid scientific research — if scientists create these flu strains before they evolve naturally in the wild, then they can study them and prepare for a possible pandemic. They can also prove that these pandemic strains can arise, leading to more knowledge of the flu viruses. Others argue that this knowledge, and these dangerous viruses, could be used by evildoers to kill many people.

I agree with both sides of the argument. I think this is valid scientific research, but it does not need to be widely publicized. Technical journals will definitely suffice. Additionally, I wonder why, after the research is done, the created viruses and the ferrets they infected need to be kept around. I know that keeping the viruses allows more research to be done on them, but it also brings more danger to the public, the longer they are kept around.

Frankly, I don’t like the idea of scientists keeping around dangerous bacteria and viruses. I know there are plenty of dangerous germs in the environment, but I don’t like the idea of humans adding to them. Scientists seem to think that we should trust them simply because they are scientists — like the priests of a new religion. Speaking for myself, since the financial crisis, I really have a hard time trusting anyone who says ‘Trust me, I’m an expert.’ If my head tells me one thing, I don’t want to believe something else just because I am told I should. ‘Housing prices don’t fall.’ ‘Subprime mortgages are safe investment vehicles when we aggregate them and call them CDOs.’ ‘Dangerous germs are safe in the hands of scientists — they won’t let anything happen.’

What is your opinion? Should there be regulations? Should scientific inquiry be stopped in the name of safety? Or is it all overblown and really safe?

Thanks to TYWKIWDBI for bringing this to my attention.

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