Balancing science and security

There can be no doubt that the September 11th terrorist attacks have caused each of us to reexamine our way of life, both personal and professional.

Dec 1st, 2002

There can be no doubt that the September 11th terrorist attacks have caused each of us to reexamine our way of life, both personal and professional. But we should be on guard against restrictions that are imposed in the name of "national security" without adequate public dissemination and discussion. Such is the case with recent moves by the Bush administration to restrict access to scientific information, particularly on the Internet.

Researchers have become alarmed by the administration's efforts to restrict the publication of results of federally financed research out of concern that it could aid terrorists. Already there have been some skirmishes between the White House and biology researchers. As a result, the concerned leaders of the National Academies have issued some guidelines for researchers and government officials to consider. I present those recommendations below:

The scientific, engineering, and health research community should work closely with the federal government to determine which research may be related to possible new security threats and to develop principles for researchers in each field. Among the questions that the scientific, engineering, and health community should address are the following:

  • Are there areas of currently unclassified research that should be classified in the new security environment?
  • How can the scientific, engineering, and health community establish systems that
  • can monitor this issue effectively, as science and potential threats change over time?
  • Do any materials widely used in research require additional security procedures?
  • How can the scientific, engineering, and health community establish systems that will rapidly detect new potential threats from terrorism, as well as novel opportunities for countering terrorism, that arise from new discoveries, and convey these in an effective manner to the relevant government agencies?

The federal government should affirm and maintain the general principle of National Security Decision Directive 189, issued in 1985: "No restrictions may be placed upon the conduct or reporting of federally funded fundamental research that has not received national security classification, except as provided in applicable U.S. statutes."

In determining what research and information should be restricted from public access, agencies should ask:

  • How should we apply the principle of building "high fences around narrow areas" in the new security environment, so as to protect critical and well-defined information and yet permit the essential flow of scientific and technical knowledge and human capital?
  • How can such determinations be made at the outset of a research program so as not to disrupt the research?
  • How can we avoid creation of vague and poorly defined categories of "sensitive but unclassified" information that do not provide precise guidance on what information should be restricted from public access?
  • How can the government enlist the help of a large number of the nation's best scientists, engineers, and health researchers in counter-terrorism efforts, for both the unclassified and the classified areas of the overall program?

The three National Academy presidents (see www.national-academies.org/news.nsf) suggest that a meaningful dialog should be started now before more restrictions are imposed by the Bush administration. Clearly, the science, engineering, and health communities can and will make significant contributions to strengthen national security and enhance efforts directed toward counter-terrorism. But the right way is to engage in collaboration rather than stifle information exchange by unilateral action.

Jeffrey Bairstow
Online Editor
jbairstow@pennwell.com

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