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 http://www.nationalacademies.org.
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.