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FYI Number 116: October 18, 2002

Impact of Homeland Security on Research and Education

"War demands secrecy; science thrives on openness. How can a free society balance those competing demands?" With this question, House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) opened what he said was the first hearing, since the September 11 terrorist attacks, on the appropriate balance between openness and security in the nation's research enterprise. OSTP Director John Marburger testified on some of the actions the Administration has taken or is considering to enhance security in academic research. Several witnesses with experience in both government policy and university research concurred that the scientific and policy communities need to work together on this issue, but cautioned that heavy-handed restriction of research results would inhibit scientific progress. "Our scientific and technological strength is also one of our best national defenses," commented M.R.C. Greenwood, Chancellor of UC Santa Cruz.

Currently, dissemination of federally-funded research results is guided by the Reagan-era National Security Decision Directive 189 (NSDD-189), which states that to the maximum extent possible, fundamental research results should remain unrestricted, and that the appropriate mechanism for controlling information produced by federally-funded research is the classification process. As the October 10 hearing demonstrated, the Administration, Congress, and the scientific community are all revisiting the issue of how to handle research results that could potentially be used for harm. According to the committee's hearing charter, last spring DOD put forth a proposal that would give it approval authority over publication of DOD-funded research results, but this proposal was withdrawn after opposition from the science community. The hearing charter also reports that the Administration is considering other policies regarding disclosure of "sensitive but unclassified" information. Also discussed were federal policies calling for the tracking of foreign students and their fields of study, and development of an Interagency Panel on Advanced Science and Security (IPASS) to review student visa applications and prohibit some students from studying certain sensitive fields of research.

Marburger made it clear that the process of determining what information is sensitive and how it should be handled is still "in the formative stage." The Administration has been holding "listening sessions" with universities, scientific societies, and other stakeholders, with the resulting document to be published in the Federal Register for public comment. He assuaged concerns about government control over publication of research results, saying, "I am aware that there is an impression that the Administration is considering a policy of pre-publication review of sensitive federally-funded research. This is incorrect." Marburger testified that it is the goal of the Administration, as well as Congress, "to ensure an open scientific environment in the U.S." while maintaining homeland security. He also clarified that the designation of a "Sensitive Homeland Security" category of information did not necessarily refer to research results, but to government information, such as intelligence, law enforcement, and public health information, that is generally not made public.

Witness after witness stated that the strength of the nation's S&T enterprise is based on open exchange of information, and on the publication of findings and methods so that experiments can be reproduced by others. This "mitigates fraudulent results, sloppy science, and political biases," said Greenwood, who previously served as OSTP Associate Director for Science. Ronald Atlas, an expert in bioterrorism and President of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), warned that efforts to restrict scientific information might also "stifle the research needed to develop countermeasures" to possible biological attacks.

"We should take care not to break what works well and not attempt to fix what isn't broken," Greenwood said. The Reagan-era NSDD-189 was cited repeatedly as an effective model for addressing research-related security concerns. The witnesses urged that, if research is of sufficient concern to be restricted, it should simply be classified. They warned that the categorizing of research as "sensitive but unclassified" was poorly defined and confusing. MIT professor Sheila Widnall, former Secretary of the Air Force, said the responsibilities and obligations of a university toward such research would be vague and unclear. So far, she said, MIT has refused to accept any contract restrictions that would require government pre-publication review for "sensitive" information. Widnall also served on an MIT committee that recommended that all classified research be performed off-campus, and that no students should do their thesis research in areas requiring access to classified materials.

The witnesses acknowledged that, while NSDD-189 has worked well in the past, new concerns have arisen since the Cold War - in particular, the concern over biological agents being used as weapons of terrorism. As Boehlert remarked in his opening statement, "for the first time, the biological sciences are caught on the horns of our security dilemma." Widnall noted that the biological sciences community was not as familiar as those in the physical sciences with "the relationship between basic research and its national security applications," and needs to start identifying areas that should be classified and mechanisms for doing so. Atlas reported that the ASM has developed its own policies to prevent the publication of research that could be harmful, but continues to require that articles contain sufficient information to allow others to reproduce the work. "Independent reproducibility is the heart of the scientific process," he testified. He commented that the biological sciences community was "struggling to identify what is dangerous, what is sensitive." He also said the ASM has asked the National Academy of Sciences to convene a meeting of scientific publishers in early 2003 to discuss security issues related to publishing.

Questions were also raised about restricting foreign students from certain fields of study. A 2001 presidential directive that called for establishing the IPASS process also prohibits "certain international students from receiving education and training in sensitive areas," and legislation has been passed that will require universities to keep track of foreign students and their fields of study. The witnesses pointed out that international students bring vitality and talent to U.S. universities, that students change majors frequently, and that information from most courses is available on the Internet and in textbooks. Marburger explained that the IPASS process, which is still being formulated, would focus on graduate-level research and consider each case individually. The directive, he added, states that the government "shall continue to foster and support international students."

Remarking that restrictions on university research would not have prevented the September 11 attacks, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) asked, "are we overreaching?" However, the witnesses agreed that it was the responsibility of the scientific community to address issues of security, and to join in a dialogue with the Administration to find the proper balance between security and openness. "I've concluded that the Administration is asking the right questions, and consulting broadly," declared Ranking Minority Member Ralph Hall (D-TX). The committee expects to hold more hearings on this subject.

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3094

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