TrendScientific exchanges in the age of terrorism

Published 24 October 2007

How do we reconcile heightened security measures adopted in the wake of 9/11 with the open and free international exchange of scientific experts and ideas? That is the question

The National Research Council, a division of the U.S. National Academies of Science, has released a report on a timely and important topic: How to reconcile heightened security measures adopted in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks with the open and free international exchange of scientific experts and ideas. The report argues that the continued exchange of scientific expertise as an essential component of national security and calls for efforts to smooth and simplify the handling research-related security concerns. The committee concludes that many of the existing problems can be handled largely by coordinating and rationalizing existing efforts.

Arstechinca’s John Timmer writes that the report strongly supports a continuation of an environment within the United States which promotes the international exchange of science, arguing that it is essential for continued U.S. leadership in science. The authors argue that the need for foreign contributions to U.S. science means that there is a need for these contributions to maintain national security: The United States relies on technological and financial superiority for much of its military and security activities, and a reduction of scientific activity would adversely affect both of these. The committee examined a number of areas in which national security may have consequences for scientific exchange, including clauses in federal contracts and grants that restrict the use of foreign researchers, decisions to limit scientific publications on sensitive topics, the restrictions imposed by “sensitive but unclassified” designations, and the management of biological information and agents.

The report finds that existing measures for limiting sensitive information are probably sufficient and may well be relaxed. These measures cause friction within the scientific community owing to the fact that the same mechanism is applied differently by different federal agencies, and restrictions remain in place long past the time that they have become irrelevant. The report’s authors note, for example, that “many of the items on the Commerce Control List and the U.S. Munitions List are technologically outdated, broadly available, and not controlled in other countries.” They also cite the use of the ill-defined designation “sensitive but unclassified,” which restricts publication of sensitive topics without the sort of formal review that classified designations bring. The committee, therefore, calls for a joint group to be formed from members of the scientific and national security communities which would perform annual evaluations of the rate and usage of different research restrictions. This would allow for clearer and more precise definitions in cases in which the application of some standards are arbitrary and when some restrictions become outdated. This group would also help the second goal the committee supports: An on-going dialog between scientific and security personnel, including greater education within each community regarding the needs and expectation of the other.

The committee says that, in most cases, the scientific foundations of many potentially dangerous technologies are either developed internationally, or spread internationally through scientific exchange and publication. This is especially true in the case of biology, in which a basic education in molecular biology is sufficient for someone to develop dangerous biological materials. The best and most effective measure to counter this inescapable fact — and here the report, perhaps inadvertantly, weighs in on the heated debated over immigration now raging in the United States — is for the United States to adopt more generous and liberal immigration policies, or what the report calls a free movement of what it terms “human capital”: Immigration and visa policies which keep people out of the United States are not a recipe for increased security. Remaining with the dangers inherent in biological knoweldge and advanced research, the report urges the United States to engage in an international effort to track and limit the spread of potentially dangerous biological materials and expertise. Beyond biology, it suggests that both the scientific and security communities turn to sociologists, who could help both recognize the factors which lead someone to apply scientific knowledge to terrorism. Incidentally, sociological studies are also promoted as a way of helping these two communities understand each other.