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Fall 2007 Vol. 7 No. 3

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©Stockbyte/Getty ImagesTo Secure Both Nation and Scientific Freedom

Striking a Balance

In the years since 2001, federal agencies have become more vigilant about the scientists and students they allow into the country, the technologies they allow out of it, and the type of research they permit to be published. The fear is that terrorists or rogue nations will take some of the country's greatest strengths -- its scientific and technological tools and knowledge -- and use them to launch future attacks on the U.S. and other nations.

Concerns about certain types of research falling into the wrong hands are legitimate, says a new report from the National Research Council, and safeguards are needed. But if extreme measures are enacted that curtail the flow of information or the movement of skilled people, these restrictions could significantly hinder the nation's scientific and technology enterprise. This interference could in turn slow the development of tools needed to defend against terrorism -- technologies to better detect radioactive materials, for example, or vaccines to protect against biological or chemical agents -- and undermine the nation's long-term economic strength.

As part of its study, the Research Council held a series of regional meetings on university campuses to hear from the scientific and national security communities. The report that emerged recommends a more enduring partnership to make sure that both security and research interests are protected. It calls on the federal government to establish a standing commission -- one that includes representatives of both communities -- to review policies on the exchange of scientific information and the participation of foreign-born scientists and students in research.

One task the commission should perform is ensuring that National Security Decision Directive 189 stays in force. Put in place over 20 years ago, the directive says that basic research should be open to publication and to participation by foreign scientists. Many government policies and practices in recent years have effectively reversed this directive, the report says. For example, when federal agencies and corporations award research grants or contracts to universities, they sometimes include clauses that prevent the publication of research or the participation of foreign scientists or students. And participants at the regional meetings expressed concern that research was increasingly -- and inconsistently -- being categorized by federal agencies as "sensitive but unclassified" and therefore restricted. Research considered too risky for publication by one agency is sometimes seen as acceptable by another. The report calls for an annual survey to examine how frequently this designation and similar restrictions are being used.

The new commission should also monitor restrictions placed on the entry of foreign-born students and scholars into the U.S., which were tightened shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Meeting participants observed that initially there were some overly restrictive reviews of student visas and travel, but the situation seems to be improving. Foreign-born students and scientists are an integral element of the U.S. research enterprise, accounting for more than half of graduate students and postdocs in some fields. Universities and the U.S. government should continue to welcome talented students and scholars from around the world, the report says. In addition, Congress should consider creating a new nonimmigrant visa category for doctoral-level graduate students and postdoctoral scholars.

The free flow of equipment and technologies needs to be protected as well, the report says. Export controls are designed to keep advanced technologies from being shipped to people or countries that might misuse them. But many items restricted by the current list are outdated or already widely available in other countries. These lists should be reviewed regularly to make sure that items in wide use are not being needlessly restricted.   -- Sara Frueh & Molly Galvin

Science and Security in a Post 9/11 World: A Report Based on Regional Discussions Between the Science and Security Communities. Committee on a New Government-University Partnership for Science and Security, Committee on Science, Technology, and Law, Division on Policy and Global Affairs (2007, 138 pp.; ISBN 0-309-11191-9; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $30.75 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was co-chaired by Jacques Gansler, vice president for research, University of Maryland, College Park; and Alice P. Gast, president of Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pa. The study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health.

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Copyright 2007 by the National Academy of Sciences