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FYI Number 133: December 6, 2002

John Marburger Speaks on Science and Security at Industrial Physics Forum

Prior to President Bush's signing of the Department of Homeland Security bill on November 25, OSTP Director John Marburger took several occasions to discuss the White House's views on security in the conduct of science. On October 27 he gave the keynote address on "Science in a Security Conscious World" at the policy session of this year's Industrial Physics Forum. Security in air travel, scientific contributions to securing U.S. ports and naval assets, and countering bioterrorism threats were other topics at this session of the annual Industrial Physics Forum and Academic-Industrial Workshop, which is sponsored by the American Institute of Physics' Corporate Associates program. Some highlights of Marburger's keynote address are provided below.

Marburger began his remarks with a brief history of the interaction between science and security. It was "an accident that the scientific knowledge needed to produce the technology of nuclear weapons appeared coincidentally with the outbreak of World War II," he said, but "nuclear science henceforth became a paradigm for postwar arguments favoring public support of research. The course of World War II was strongly affected by technology, most notably radar, but arguable also penicillin and other areas of chemistry, optics, and electronics, as well as nuclear weapons."

While security in the post-war period generally focused on nuclear weapons, Marburger noted that "the example of nuclear weapons is, unfortunately, not very useful for guidance in how to manage science in a security-conscious twenty-first century. The scientific knowledge upon which nuclear fission weapons are based is thoroughly understood and widely available today.... But everyone knows that the technical skill required to make a nuclear weapon is specialized, and that substantial resources are required to produce the fissile material and fabricate it into a weapon of mass destruction. Specific details of these processes remain classified.... Because of their tremendous potential destructive power and their relatively small size, [nuclear weapons] remain high on the list of security concerns. Everyone agrees that nuclear weapons technology should remain highly classified."

"None of these precedents for dealing with security-sensitive technical material gives adequate guidance for the field of bio-warfare or bio-terrorism," Marburger continued. "Modern biotechnology has two aspects: the apparatus required to unravel molecular codes and structures and their significance to the organism, and the technical procedures employed to produce novel organisms based upon this knowledge. In contrast with nuclear science and technology, the former is relatively difficult to acquire, and the latter relatively easy.... In biotechnology, therefore, the discovery activity upon which the entire field depends for its advance is the one that is technically difficult to acquire. The applications phase is easier. This has implications for any policy aimed to enhance national security against bio-terrorism. The most efficient way to prevent bio-terrorism would be to classify the basic data that is difficult to acquire. Because it is basic data, however, this approach would have a serious impact on the development of all applications of biological research, and generally impair the progress of the field. The alternative of denying access to education in techniques for applying biotechnical knowledge is not efficient because the necessary training is in general not particularly specialized."

"What is an appropriate course of action here?" Marburger asked. He pointed out that the policy currently in effect is the Reagan-era National Security Decision Directive 189, which states that, to the maximum extent possible, the products of fundamental research should remain unrestricted, and that the mechanism used for control of federally funded R&D information should be the classification process. However, Marburger remarked that in March, "Chief of Staff Andrew Card issued a memorandum ordering federal departments and agencies to ‘take steps to protect information regarding weapons of mass destruction and other information that could compromise national security....' [T]here are obviously many forms of information, such as law enforcement and forensics data, whose circulation is controlled but which are not classified. Mr. Card's memorandum was a reasonable caution to agencies that generate and use such information. It does not signal an intent by the U.S. Government to intervene in the process of review and publication of the results of scientific research." Marburger referred listeners to his recent testimony on this topic (available on the OSTP web site at before the House Science Committee (see FYI #116) .

"As an example appropriate way to address the complexity of the openness vs. security issue," Marburger cited President Bush's October 2001 directive which declares, in part, "the Government shall implement measures to end the abuse of student visas and prohibit certain international students from receiving education and training in sensitive areas, including areas of study with direct application to the development and use of weapons of mass destruction." It is difficult, he said, "to define when a particular student applying to study a particular field at a particular institution may pose a security risk.... [I]t would be extremely difficult to devise a set of rules that could be applied automatically by consular offices in a foreign country to assess the probability that the applicant could be a terrorist seeking special information needed to disrupt society. As a practical alternative, an interagency working group...has proposed a process that brings the necessary information to bear on problematical cases."

He continued, "The Administration concluded that given the wide array of coursework and information freely available through academic institutions and other open sources, it becomes impossible to create a list of sensitive courses or even majors that would meaningfully enhance homeland security against terrorist threats from international students. Because of the focus on uniquely available, sensitive, scientific training or knowledge, it is logical to assume that graduate and postdoctoral researchers would be more likely to be reviewed than undergraduate students whose educational content tends to be more widely available." An Interagency Panel on Advanced Science and Security will be established to review visa applications on a case-by-case basis, focusing on "international students who wish to participate in sensitive science and technology areas that are uniquely available in the United States and who may use the knowledge gained to threaten the security of the United States." The panel will "evaluate a number of variables, including the individual's background and previous education and training, their country of origin or affiliation, their scientific area of study, training, or research and the nature of the work currently conducted at the U.S. educational institution, and will provide the referring agency with an advisory opinion regarding the proposed visa applicant." Marburger noted that the panel will work closely with educational institutions and scientific societies to learn what "sensitive scientific knowledge is emerging," and that the panel's work will be monitored "to ensure that the Federal government has struck the right balance between scientific openness and homeland security.... We don't wish to turn away scientists unnecessarily."

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

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