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FYI Number 120: October 28, 2002

National Academies' Presidents on Science and Security

In the new climate of heightened security after last year's terrorist attacks and anthrax mailings, what restrictions should be placed on public access to research data, methods and results that might be used for harm? What is the appropriate balance between open scientific exchange and the restriction of information? Last week, the presidents of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine issued a statement to provoke thought and stimulate discussion in both the policymaking and scientific communities. The October 18 statement, "Science and Security in an Age of Terrorism," was signed by Bruce Alberts of NAS, William Wulf of NAE, and Harvey Fineberg of IM. The statement and a supporting background paper are available at

Since September 2001, says the background paper, "the federal government has either adopted or is considering tighter security measures to counteract terrorism," including "increased monitoring of foreign students and scholars, restrictions on access to certain information and materials, new exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act, an expanded list of technologies subject to export control or classification, and some screening of scientific, engineering, and health publications." (As reported in FYI #116, OSTP Director John Marburger, in a recent hearing, denied that the government was considering pre-publication review of sensitive federally-funded research results.)

The presidents' statement calls on scientists, engineers, and health researchers to work with the government to "determine which research may be related to possible new security threats and to develop principles for researchers in each field." In particular, the background paper notes, "the chemical, biological, and even social science communities bear new responsibilities to identify materials and areas of research that should - or should not - be classified." However, the presidents insist that the distinctions between classified and unclassified research must be absolutely clear: "We believe it to be essential that these distinctions not include poorly defined categories of ‘sensitive but unclassified' information that do not provide precise guidance on what information should be restricted from public access. Experience shows that vague criteria of this kind generate deep uncertainties among both scientists and officials responsible for enforcing regulations."

"The federal government," the background paper states, "has the responsibility to maintain an open flow of information to a degree consistent with national security.... Open communication of the results of research is indispensable to the ‘self-correcting' activities" of the research enterprise. To this end, the presidents call on the federal government to "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.'"

The statement challenges both scientists and policymakers to consider ways to identify research that should be classified, without adversely impacting the conduct of the research or the free flow of other scientific information, and ways the scientific community can be enlisted to contribute to the detection of, and countermeasures against, terrorist threats.

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

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