The government is allowed to prohibit the publication of research results that could benefit terrorists. But scientists need to assess the risks for themselves, since the Dutch government does not believe it necessary to set up a separate advisory committee. “There’s the same uncertainty as before,” responds the scientific association Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW).

Two years ago, virologist Ron Fouchier discovered that it only takes a few mutations to make the avian influenza virus transmissible through the air. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs was concerned that this knowledge could give terrorists ideas, and Fouchier was required to apply for an export permit.

The Ministry initially prohibited the virologist from publishing his results, but ultimately – after a lot of wrangling – Fouchier yet received permission.

Separate advisory committee won’t be necessary

To prevent this kind of uncertainty from arising again in the future, two years ago, KNAW proposed the appointment of a separate ‘bio-security advisory committee’. This committee could inform scientists at an early stage in the process whether or not they would be required to apply for an export permit.

After two years, the Dutch government has presently published its response to this proposal. In short: according to State Secretary of Science Sander Dekker and Foreign Trade Minister Lilianne Ploumen, a separate advisory committee won’t be necessary. Researchers can turn to the biosecurity desk of the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) and to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for advice.

Government response ‘is a great pity’

Checking with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs reveals that in 2014 and 2015, there were zero export permit applications for scientific publications in the Netherlands. Nevertheless, according to Erik van de Linde of KNAW, the Cabinet’s response “is a great pity. Not only did it take very long before the government responded to our recommendations, but it hasn’t adopted them either.”

In the present situation, scientists don’t have the opportunity to gauge beforehand whether or not they will be allowed to publish sensitive results. “In its response, the government refers to Foreign Affairs, the RIVM biosecurity desk and the biosafety officers employed by the institutes themselves. But if you set up a central biosecurity advisory committee, it would be clear who you need to turn to for expertise. I can’t imagine that the people at Foreign Affairs are fully up to date on virus mutations.”