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Winter/Spring 2003 Vol. 3 No. 1

Table of Contents


National Academy of Engineering

Adjusting the Balance Point Between
Openness and Security

Wm. A. Wulf; photo by Valerie Chase

Since September 11, 2001, the National Academies -- and indeed the engineering and science communities in general -- have significantly stepped up work on national security issues. These efforts, however, have thrust us into a classic conflict between openness and the now painfully obvious need to safeguard certain knowledge.

The current balance point between these two extremes was delicately set by competing superpowers during the Cold War, when the main issue was guarding nuclear secrets. Now, powerful technologies are even within the reach of individuals. Terrorists employing asymmetric warfare tactics are forcing the need to shift the fulcrum sharply.

But openness and security aren't necessarily competing forces. While restrictions on some information are essential to our security, so is openness. Sharing research is not only essential for improving our quality of life but it protects us as well, producing technologies to counter terrorism.

The engineering and science communities must play a leadership role in adjusting the balance point, which will change, with or without us. To that end, the National Academies hosted a one-day workshop in January to explore, in particular, how to deal with the publication of biotechnology research that might facilitate the creation of terrorist weapons (the workshop is summarized in an article in this issue of In Focus). The next day, inspired by the workshop's discussion, a group of 32 journal editors and authors convened to formulate a statement both asserting the importance of open publication and acknowledging that the potential harm of some information could preclude publication.

Another important part of determining where to balance openness and security is dealing with the notion of the new realm of "sensitive but unclassified" information. Current law defines what information can and cannot be classified but, with the perspective of 9/11 and the anthrax attacks, it's now clear that the law doesn't cover everything should be kept from terrorists. This new concept is largely undefined and can lead to the sort of uncertainty that stifles research and weakens our security.

The National Academies will continue to work -- within our own community, with the government, and with the rest of the world -- to find the right balance point. At the same time, we'll continue our efforts to help ensure that counterterrorism technology stays ahead of the bad guys' ability to turn knowledge into terror.

    WM. A. WULF
    National Academy of Engineering

In October of last year, the presidents of the NAS, NAE, and IOM issued a joint statement on the issue of openness and security, available at in the Presidents' Corner.

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Copyright 2003 by the National Academy of Sciences