Researchers worry that fear of terrorism could muzzle science

Friday, January 3, 2003

WASHINGTON -- The Massachusetts Institute of Technology walked away from a $404,000 study because the government wanted to restrict participation by foreign students. Other universities are balking at demands that the government check research in the name of national security before scientists can publish or even talk about it.

While most federal financing still comes free from such strings, attempts to impose restrictions on research have increased since Sept. 11, 2001, out of fear that some information could help terrorists.

University leaders worry the trend could jeopardize the nation's tradition of open science -- talking and writing about findings so they can be verified and built upon by others.

"When the Soviet Union tried to keep its research secret during the Cold War, their whole scientific apparatus atrophied," said former Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall, now an aeronautics professor at MIT.

"The stakes are very high in working this out," said Widnall, who led a faculty committee that opposed restrictions on unclassified research.

Some major universities have turned down federal contracts because the government insisted on advance approval before papers were published.

MIT persuaded the Department of Defense to remove prior-approval requirements from several recent contracts, said Paul Powell, who negotiates research funding for MIT.

But the National Security Agency refused to budge from a requirement that any foreigners working on a planned project at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory be screened by the government in advance, forcing the school to turn down the money in September, Powell said.

About half of graduate students in the physical sciences and engineering come from abroad.

An NSA spokeswoman said the agency could provide no immediate comment on Thursday.

The Bush administration and scientists alike are struggling with how to balance openness against the fear that all sorts of research could help terrorists -- by disclosing structural weaknesses in bridges or revealing how to make biological weapons, for example.

President Bush signed a law last summer prohibiting students from countries considered sponsors of terrorism from working with germs and toxins most likely to be used for bioterrorism.

Meantime, researchers and scientific journals are debating whether -- and how -- they should censor themselves to safeguard information from terrorists.

"The whole atmosphere under which we work was affected by Sept. 11," said Richard Seligman, who negotiates government contracts at the California Institute of Technology.

For example, CalTech has agreed to allow the Army Research Laboratory to review a professor's work on computer simulation before publication, Seligman said. The university made an exception to its rules "in the national interest," he said.

The White House and Defense Department are each studying whether new controls should be placed on sensitive information, but for now, there are no government-wide guidelines for deciding what research should be kept under wraps.

The president's science adviser, John Marburger, told the House Science Committee in October that science will have to adjust to heightened security. And foreign students are receiving closer scrutiny, Marburger said, because of "the possibility that we are training future terrorists."

Traditionally, universities have held the position that any research not classified as secret could be published freely -- a broad understanding that was formalized by President Reagan. The National Academies, chartered by Congress to advise the government on science, recently urged the Bush administration to stick with that principle.

But exceptions existed before the attacks on New York and Washington. The Federal Aviation Administration, for example, had a long-standing requirement that research it financed be vetted to avoid revealing too much about security procedures.

The month before the terrorist attacks, the Army Research Laboratory began requiring researchers it finances to get Army approval before publishing studies.

After an outcry from schools, the Army softened the provision last summer to say that papers must be submitted in advance for review, but not for approval, said Robert Hardy, associate director of the Council on Governmental Relations, which represents universities.

Both sides are still discussing the issue, said Melissa Bohan, an Army spokeswoman.


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